Adult Informal Science Education Programs

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


There are a variety of informal science education programs that target adult learners. These programs exist along a continuum from casual drop-in programs (e.g., 1-2 hour workshops or lectures on scientific topics in museum settings), to longer and more rigorous programs that approximate formal learning experiences even though no formal educational credit is received by the learner (e.g., multi-session face-to-face or online courses/MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses – offered by a variety of formal and informal educational institutions. See the Aftermarket Education visualization from Popular Science for an overview of the science education MOOC landscape). Adult learners are unique—they learn and process information differently than younger learners, they have a wide array of goals for participating in educational programming and they subsequently have unique preferences for informal learning experiences.

Examples of Adult Informal Science Education Programs include:

  • The Wired Child: How 21st Century Technology Affects the Brain (American Museum of Natural History, 2011)
  • The Parent-Child Bond: Behind the Science of Attachment (American Museum of Natural History, 2012)
  • Writing in the Sciences (Stanford Online, 2014)
  • The Science of Happiness (Harvard’s 2014-2015 EdX)
  • Our Earth’s Future (American Museum of Natural History, 2014-2015)

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

History of Adult Learning

Malcolm Knowles was one of the first modern scholars to assert that that adults learn differently than children. He is credited with popularizing the term “andragogy” to describe instructional practices oriented toward adults and he developed adult learning theories based on the unique characteristics of adult learners. Knowles organized a list of unique characteristics that apply to adult learners, including adults’ tendency toward self-directed learning, adults’ goal- oriented, relevancy-oriented and practical learning preferences, and adults’ wealth of life experiences and subsequent need for respect.

How Adults Learn

Information from literature on how adults learn in formal educational settings, e.g., as adult learners in universities or community colleges, or in professional development programs associated with their jobs or careers suggest that:

  • Adult learners learn differently than children. Adults and adults’ brains are different than children and children’s brains. Subsequently, there are neurological differences in how adult brains are wired to learn new things. Children learn by creating new cell assemblies and phase sequences whereas adults learn by forming new arrangements with those assemblies and sequences that have been created in the past (Conner 2007). Adults, however, must make connections to previous knowledge and experiences, and misconceptions may need to be corrected along the way.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. When adults seek out learning opportunities they have specific goals in mind. These goals can vary over time depending on an adult learner’s needs at different points in their life, and often vary from one adult learner to the next. Within the same adult learning program, one adult learner may be seeking to expand her knowledge to help advance a career or performance at work, another may be seeking information that can help improve the way he lives or raises his children, and another may simply be looking to have fun socializing with other adults while being mentally stimulated. Because adults’ goals can vary so widely, especially in the context of informal learning, it is important for instructors to seek information from each participant on their own unique goals, and understand the potential for there to be competing interests among adult participants in any educational program.
  • Adults seek relevancy. Instinctively, adults focus on the things that are most useful to them in their own lives—the more relevant information is to an adult’s own experiences, the easier it is for them to understand and retain the information. Conner (2007) suggests that “rote learning frustrates [adults] because the brain resists meaningless stimuli. When we invoke the brain’s natural capacity to integrate information, however, we can assimilate boundless amounts.” In instances where the relevancy of certain information may not be readily apparent to adult learners, pointing out how or why it is important—especially on a personal level—can help to build buy-in to the learning process.
  • Adult learners are practical. Adults have many responsibilities and great demands on their time and attention. They are therefore interested in learning things in the most efficient way possible. The prefer focusing on the key points and being given options and resources to expand their knowledge or explore related topics that pique their interest as time permits.
  • Adults are self-directed learners. Adults appreciate the flexibility to learn at the own pace and in their own way. Adult learning programs that provide options and a wide range of resources for participants to take an active role in directing their own learning can help to ensure that each learner’s goals are being met. On a similar note, adult learning programs that make assignments or activities mandatory may displease some adult participants.
  • Adults want to be respected. While they value the expertise of others, adults want their own experiences and knowledge to be acknowledged and equally valued by instructors and peers. Opportunities for participants to share examples from their own experiences can help create a sense that all participants are a valuable part of a learning community, where everyone—novice and expert alike—have important things to share and contribute. Being able to share examples from their own experiences can also help adult learners form connections and learn new information better. Instructors should seek to set a tone where all participants’ contributions to the learning experience are valued. Adult learners appreciate facilitators who share information about their own connections to the content as well.
  • Adults need a learning environment that helps minimize their fear of failure. A young child learning to walk fails hundreds of times before he finally succeeds, but over time, humans come to fear failure. By the time we become adults we tend to avoid situations where we might fail. This fear of failure may lead adults to be more reluctant to fully participate in educational experiences, even though failure can be an important part of the learning process. Instructors can address adult learners’ fears by assuring them that it is okay to make a few mistakes along the way. Providing opportunities to practice or prepare in private before doing something in front of their peers may also help to put adult learners at ease. Additionally, instructors can help moderate discussions so that participants whose views or beliefs differ from those of their classmates still feel like they are a part of the group, rather than outsiders. Because adult learners learn in different ways and at different speeds, it is important for instructors to be attentive to differences among participants and remind everyone that it is okay to take more or less time or different paths to learning something.

Why Adults Seek Learning Opportunities

There are different reasons that adult learners seek out learning opportunities. In his book, The Inquiring Mind: A study of the adult who continues to learn (1963), adult education scholar Cyril Houle identified three types of motivational orientations within adult learners: goal-oriented, activity-oriented and learning-oriented. Goal-oriented learners seek to achieve a specific goal, activity-oriented learners enjoy the act of learning including the social nature of many learning experiences, and learning-oriented adults are driven by an innate desire to learn.

Subsequent researchers have sought to enhance and refine Houle’s list of motivations. Morstain and Smart (1974) developed the following shortened list of motivational factors based on Boshier’s (1971) 48-item Educational Participation Scale:

  • Social Relationships – making new acquaintances, having social interactions
  • External Expectations – sometimes adult learners are required to learn new things
  • Professional Advancement – while not required, adults may also seek out learning opportunities to advance along their career path
  • Social Welfare – wanting to serve others and the community
  • Escape/Stimulation – learning is something to do; a hobby for some
  • Cognitive Interest – genuine interest in learning for the sake of learning

An adult learning program can benefit from seeking input from participants about own personal motivations for participation. There may also be value in strategically seeking to meet one or more of the needs stated above.

Directions for Future Research 

There is a growing set of literature on how youth learn in informal settings (as compared to how they learn in formal educational settings), likewise there is an ample amount of literature on adult learning in formal educational settings. There appears, however, to be a gap in our collective knowledge base where non-formal adult learning, specifically in informal learning environments (e.g., museums) is concerned. This is not to say that this research does not exist—but rather that it is not readily available.

With the vast growth in Open Education and OpenCourseWare online learning programs that are being made freely available to learners of all ages, including large numbers of adults, there is a great opportunity to study adult learning instructional practices and resulting outcomes.



Boshier, R. (1971). Motivational orientations of adult education participants: A factor analytic exploration of Houle’s typology. Adult Education, 21, 3-26.

Conner, M. L. (2004) Andragogy and Pedagogy. Ageless Learner, 1997-2004.

Conner, M. L. (2007) How Adults Learn. Ageless Learner, 1997-2007.

Knowles, M. S. (1970, 1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Andragogy versus pedagogy, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Knowles, M. S. et al (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Lieb, S. (1991) Adults as learners.

Merriam, S. B. and Caffarella, R. S. (1991) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Morstain, B. R., & Smart, J. C. (1974). Reasons for participation in adult education courses: A multivariate analysis of group differences. Adult Education, 24, 83-98.

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Zemke, R. and Zemke S. (1984) Innovation Abstracts Vol VI, No 8, March 9, 1984