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Spring 2007 Schedule #23572
Draft syllabus Final version with weekly details available in class

Cristine Smith, 264 Hills South  
hursdays, 1-4PM    273-275 Hills South
Office Hours:
Wednesdays, 10-1 & by appointment


This course will enable you to expand and deepen your understanding of adult learning theories and how they are practiced in social contexts. Each learner in the course, including the instructor, is presumed to have extensive experience as an adult learner and/or experience as an adult educator or facilitator of adult learning. The course will help us build the conceptual foundations of our practice as adult educators, as well as enhance our personal experience as learners, by examining and critiquing theory in relation to experience and social contexts. Central to the course is the examination of varied cultural perspectives on adult learning theory and practice, through analysis and discussion among course participants.

The course is organized to reflect a key concept in learning theory: that learning is enhanced through self-organized learning within a supportive community, facilitated through dialogue, exploration and self-discovery. In other words, as you become familiar with adult learning theory, you will apply it as you decide on your own learning activities and assignments. The course will be relevant to those interested in adult learning in all contexts.


The key goal is to explore adult learning theories and then apply one or more to (a) your own learning, and (b) to a particular context within which you think you will be working.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

    1. articulate how adult learning theory informs your own learning;
    2. describe the perspectives and arguments of the main schools in adult learning theory;
    3. determine how various theories apply to your own practice as an adult educator;
    4. identify how differences in identity, socio-economic, cultural, political, organizational and other contextual factors affect adult learning;
    5. analyze the theories and application of those theories used by existing or planned adult learning programs, and any contradictions between espoused theory and theory-in-use
    6. evaluate how the web-based nature of this course relates to your particular approach to learning.


The class is built in four parts:

    1. Part One : Focus on adult learning theory and historical trends.
    2. Part Two : Focus on research about the biological aspects of learning (brain-based research, etc.) and how these influence adult learning
    3. Part Three : Focus on the characteristics of the adult learner (social, economic, gender, cultural, etc.) and how these influence adult learning
    4. Part Four : Focus on the characteristics of the learning event (the educational intervention or activity) and how this influences adult learning

The class sessions will be structured for maximum participation, with a mix of individual, pairs, small group, and whole group learning, AND a mix of experiential, analytical discussion, and application activities.

In addition, we will be experimenting with a course website through SPARK, the UMass webCT system. That means that all of you will be accessing this syllabus, the course assignments, the readings, announcements and discussion via the course website. I will demonstrate on the first day how it is set up. You will also turn in all of your assignments through the course website.


Specific readings assigned for each class session are listed in the Course Schedule on the next page. There are three books assigned for this course; the first two are available for purchase at Food for Thought books in downtown Amherst:

Varela, F.J. (1992). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Available at Food for Thought Books)

Merriam, S. (Ed.) (2001) The New Update on Adult Learning Theory. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (Available at Food for Thought Books)

Levinger, B. (1996) Critical Transitions: Human Capacity Development Across the Lifespan. Newton, MA: Education Development Center. (Available free from the instructor, courtesy of Ash Hartwell, on the first day of class).

In addition to assignments from these books, there will be other articles and readings (as listed in the syllabus). ALL of the other readings will be available on the course website for reading online, downloading, or printing out. There will be no course reading packet. The specific requirements for successful completion of the course are:


Description of Assignment

Grade Calculation

Quality and quantity of classroom participation

Be fully prepared to participate in class by coming to all class sessions, reading the assignments for each session, and being ready to discuss them critically.


Leading a short classroom activity related to some aspect of adult learning

Each participant will sign up to lead a short (30-45 minute for solo facilitation, 1-1.5 hours for two people working together) activity in the class that relates to some aspect of adult learning theory OR practice. This could be a discussion, role play, brainstorming activity, reflective writing activity, web search activity, etc., on some topic. I urge you to e-mail or discuss your idea with me beforehand.


3-4 page Reflection paper: adult learning theory and your own approach to learning

Please prepare a short reflection paper where you discuss how one or more theories, concepts, or perspectives of adult learning are relevant to your own learning. DUE MARCH 29.



Final project

For your final assignment, you may work individually, with a partner, or with a small group to prepare or present a final project of your own choice, such as:

  • Undertaking a case study of an adult learning program (either in the U.S. or internationally) and gleaning recommendations for practice;
  • Selecting a specific theory, concept or perspective to explore and applying it to your own context of interest;
  • Developing a guide or training about adult learning theory that would be appropriate in a particular adult learning context (i.e., a training about adult learning for potential adult literacy facilitators or health care professionals, etc.); OR
  • Another type of paper or project that suits your learning style or needs.

You may choose to do a presentation only, a paper only, or both . If you work in a pair or a small group, you MUST inform the instructor of your plan by April 15 and negotiate with the instructor to determine how each individual will be graded. Any presentations will be scheduled on either May 3 or May 10. Any final papers are DUE May 10.



Effective written communication is a key skill; therefore this course places a high premium on the quality and cogency of your written assignments. Written work in this class will be assessed for both the content of your ideas/arguments and the clarity of the writing (grammar, organization, etc.). All written work, needless to say, should be typewritten, proofread and spell-checked.

My philosophy of grading is that grades are nothing more than marks that record your accomplishments. What this means is that I try to set clear evaluative standards for your work and help you meet those standards. On each of your papers, I will provide written feedback that tells you what is missing and what specifically you can do to improve your paper. If you are dissatisfied with any of your written work, you may rewrite and resubmit that paper.

Written work will be assessed based on the following criteria:

  1. Completeness Are all parts of the assignments included? Did you follow the directions/assignment specifications?
  2. Accuracy Accuracy refers to your main points, use of concepts learned in the class, use of evidence from readings and other sources, quoting from others and the uses of statistics and other data sources. Is what you say correct and supported by evidence? Accuracy also includes proper citation of sources (APA).
  3. Analysis Are the main ideas of your paper identified? Have any implicit assumptions been identified and analyzed? Is the logic or the argument coherent and internally consistent? Is the evidence you use to make your argument assessed for its own strengths, weaknesses, limitations and representativeness?
  4. Quality of Writing A bit more intangible than other criteria. Among the guidelines I use are the following: Is the writing clear to the reader? Is the writing succinct or wordy? Is the writing organized to help the reader make their way through the paper? Are key statements supported by examples and details? Are positions taken, or arguments made, supported by evidence (facts) or argument (reasoning by analogy, metaphor)? Is the overall writing coherent?