Helping Adult Learners Learn about Science

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October 31st, 2019

Léonie Rennie is an Emeritus Professor at Curtin University in Australia. This blog was co-authored with Susan Stocklmayer, Emeritus Professor of The Australian National University, and John Gilbert, University of Reading, King’s College London.

When adults have a real and practical need to learn science, where do they start? What do they do? Are there ways that they could be supported in their learning?

Our research began as an effort to answer these questions. First, we looked at books on adult learning, but found that they were about how to teach adults, not how adults learn, particularly if they are alone in their learning tasks and really need to learn something about the STEM disciplines.

We then explored research into how informal science educators can assist individuals to learn more about science (e.g., Patrick, 2018). However, this research usually focuses on visitors (especially students) to informal education institutions, such as museums. It frequently neglects individuals who have a specific, personal requirement to learn some particular science in order to understand and resolve issues in their daily lives and need to search out the information they require.

We decided that the best way to find out how self-directed adult learners could be supported was to ask some adults how they went about learning when they had a personal imperative to know something about science and technology. If we could find out how adults learn by themselves, what skills they require, and what resources they access, then we could determine how resource providers (both human and material) can best meet the needs, and support the knowledge and skills development of adult learners.

Our Research Process

The research was designed in three stages: First, we examined theories of learning and motivation to devise a model of adult learning. Second, to test the efficacy of this draft model, we collected and analysed 15 cases of adults actually learning and synthesized the findings. This enabled us to identify the personal resources and skills that people needed to engage in self-directed learning and to revise the model according to our empirical evidence. Third, we critically reviewed the material learning resources our adults used to identify how best they could be structured to support learning. By combining the findings of these three stages, we explored how best to support self-directed learners.

Our book, Supporting Self-Directed Learning in Science and Technology Beyond the School Years (Rennie, Stocklmayer, and Gilbert, 2018) documents this exciting journey. We explored the meaning of science, technology, and STEM, and found an answer to the question “How much STEM learning do people need?”

Drafting a Framework of Adult Self-Directed Learning

When we explored the under-theorised field of adult learning (in contrast with adult education, which refers to teaching adults) we turned first to theories of learning, beginning with the classical/traditional pedagogy transmissive approach, or teacher-driven approach. We then examined more learner-centred constructivist theories, including humanistic psychology (Rogers, 1969), Piaget’s notions of schemas and assimilation of new knowledge (Piaget, 1929), Kelly’s ideas of personal schemas and constructs (Kelly, 1955) and Vygotsky’s socio-cultural perspective (Vygotsky, 1978). For greater focus on adult education, we reviewed Knowles’ ideas about andragogy (Knowles, 1975), in which self-directed learners take the initiative in their own learning, and the more recent notion of heutagogy, or self-determined learning (Hase & Kenyon, 2000). We also took into account the significance of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1982).

Note: For concise, accurate summaries of these theories, try

From these sources, we drafted a generic framework of self-directed learning that we then tested rigorously, using authentic and diverse stories of adults working to resolve a specific personal learning need. Fifteen adults in various fields with a “need-to-know” wrote about what new knowledge about science they required, what resources (human and material) they accessed, how helpful these resources were, and what else would have helped them to learn what they needed to know. The following table provides a list of these fascinating case stories that form three chapters of our book.

Topics That Adults Wanted to Learn About

Goal Specific focus
Seeking solutions to health issues
  • First pregnancy
  • Unresolved illness
  • Having a Down Syndrome child
Pursuing a lifelong hobby
  • Building a mechanical television
  • Creating complex jewelry
Pursuing environmental interests
  • Citizen science for bees
  • Why local chalk streams were running dry
Helping children
  • Dinosaur project
  • High school science homework
Explaining science to others
  • Learning to be a science center explainer
  • Being a botanical garden guide
  • Leading ecotours
Learning in and for the workplace
  • Lifelong learning
  • Understanding controversy and pseudoscience
  • Changing career

By exploring the responses of students to an open-ended assignment given to science communication class, we demonstrated the wide range of differences in how adults learned. It became very clear that the draft model derived from learning theories glossed over the importance of finding and using resources that provide essential information, so we turned to the variety of resources our case stories used, analysing what made them useful or not.

We devoted a chapter to print media; peers, friends, and colleagues; clubs and associations; educational institutions, such as museums; experts in the field; teachers, mentors, role models, and other educators; television news and documentaries; and taking courses. Our analysis of these resources teased out how best they could be used. In a separate chapter, we looked at learning from the Internet and social media.

What Successful Adult Learners Do

experimenting with mechanical television
A man experiments with his mechanical television (one of the case stories in the book).

Finally, we could lay out our consensus model of adult learning based on detailed empirical evidence. Our revised, empirically based model focused on essential skills. Self-directed learners must be able to:

  • Decide what information is needed. Being able to ask questions and to be persistent are fundamental abilities.
  • Access that information. The information must “match” the learner’s background and experience. The learner must then make the best use of the information by establishing credibility of sources, sifting through material to find what is useful, and structuring it meaningfully.
  • Reflect on what is being learned. Learners must ask themselves: “Am I making progress? What do I do next?”

Finally, and not surprisingly in the context of research in informal education, we found that successful self-directed learners required three critical personal skills: 

  1. Motivation regarding the chosen task—high interest in achieving outcomes that are personally rewarding or satisfying;
  2. Active engagement in learning, not only cognitively, but affectively, leading to action and behavioural change; and 
  3. Self-efficacy as a learner—self-belief in their ability to find and use the knowledge they seek.

The empirically based model of adult self-directed learning shows how other people can best support self-directed learners. The case stories from our adults made it very clear that developing skills and personal resources is more important than having previous content knowledge for students who sought to become self-directed learners. As noted by many others, science must be learned in context—in the world of the learner.

How Informal Educators Can Support Adult Learning

An important source of human support comes from “learning partnerships,” such as mentoring relationships or peers and colleagues who have similar problems or who will simply listen to learners and act as “sounding boards.” Other likely supporters of self-directed learners are educators who provide formal learning experiences, specialists, community liaison people, and staff in cultural organisations such as museums. By understanding the essential skills adults require and the personal resources adults need to learn effectively, we can better support them. In essence, supporting learners means stopping, looking at the learner, and listening to what they are saying. This enables informal educators to choose the most effective means of support. For example, is the problem one of ignorance, or confusion? Depending on the answer, the supporting adult should provide different responses. The key is effective two-way communication.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191–215.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum Press.

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. In UltiBase Articles. Retrieved from

Kelly, G. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs (Vol. 1). New York: W. W. Norton.

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. Prentice Hall Regents, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge Adult Education.

Patrick, P. G. (Ed.) (2017). Preparing informal science educators: Perspectives from science communication and education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: SpringerNature.

Piaget, J. (1929). The child’s conception of the world. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rennie, L. J., Stocklmayer, S. M., & Gilbert, J. K. (2019). Supporting self-directed learning in science and technology beyond the school years. New York and London: Routledge.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

This blog is excerpted from Supporting Self-Directed Learning in Science and Technology Beyond the School Years (Rennie, Stocklmayer, and Gilbert, 2018). For full details about the research methods, case stories and findings, refer to the full text. For further reading, see How People Learn II, a follow-up from the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Press to the 2009 publication How People Learn. Both are available as PDFs for free download here.