Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Investigating How Age, Ability, and Self Efficacy Influence Intentions to Learn and Learning among Participants in Adult Education

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Learning can be very broadly defined as the acquisition of information or skills measured by an improvement in some overt response (Botwinick, 1967). Estimates of the percentage of the adult population that participates in learning have steadily risen over the past forty years, with the most current study suggesting that approximately 46% of all adult Americans participate (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). According to Cross (1981), the learning society is growing because it must. The author explains that individuals cannot depend on older generations to pass along information because the world changes faster than the generations, and individuals must live in several different worlds during their lifetimes. Societal forces such as demographic factors (an aging population/larger number of adults), social trends (rising education level, changing roles of women, civil rights), economic conditions, international forces (being part of a global community), technological change and the knowledge explosion, increasing requirements for literacy, and changing assumptions (society examining its most fundamental beliefs) have played a role in this trend of increased participation in learning activities (Apps, 1988; Cross, 1981).

The finding that an increasing number of adults are pursuing learning opportunities suggests that adult learning is essential in today's world, and thus, worthy of study. Indeed, learning can lead to job acquisition, job retention, improvements on an individual's current job, promotions, and/or better alternatives (Apps, 1991). Merriam and Cunningham (1989) collapse the basic purposes of adult education into four major categories, namely to facilitate change in a dynamic society, to support and maintain the good social order, to promote productivity, and to enhance personal growth. Since learning has the potential to have such a profound impact on adults' lives, the elements that affect learning should be investigated so that steps can be taken to maximize learning when adults participate in educational activities.

Several of the motivations driving adults to participate in adult education are learning-oriented, including but not limited to the desire to know (i.e., knowing for the sake of knowing) (Apps, 1991; Burgess, 1971; Willis, 1985). Beder and Valentine (1990) conducted an exploratory factor analysis, and found one of the motivations to be self-improvement, with adults having the desire to learn new things. Studies have indicated that among the main reasons for participation (apart from earning more money), are a desire to know more/gain knowledge about some topic, the desire to learn of interesting things, and the desire to contribute to society (Willis, 1985). This suggests that many adults participate in education with the intent to learn.

However, participation in adult education, and thus, intention to learn and learning may be affected by numerous factors. Cross (1981) mentions situational barriers which arise from one's situation in life at a given time (e.g., lack of time due to career demands or family responsibilities, lack of money, or lack of transportation), institutional barriers which consist of all the practices and procedures that exclude or discourage working adults from participating in educational activities (e.g., inconvenient schedules or locations or inappropriate courses), and dispositional barriers which are associated with self-perceptions (e.g., feeling too old to learn or lacking confidence in one's ability to learn). One of the relevant self-perceptions associated with learning is Bandura's (1977) concept of perceived self-efficacy, which is concerned with judgments of how well an individual can execute courses of action (Ajzen, 1991; Bandura, 1982). Therefore, an adult may perceive that he/she does not have the capacity to learn very well.

Neugarten (1977) mentions Fiske's (1974) alternative view of personality as the study of perceptions, including the ways in which persons perceive, interpret, and construe themselves, situations, and other persons. …