Applying Insights from Adult Learning Theory to Improve Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Programming

Publication Date: August 18, 2021
Cover of Applying Insights from Adult Learning Theory to Improve Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Programming

Download Report

Download Report PDF (1,170.11 KB)
  • File Size: 1,170.11 KB
  • Pages: 36
  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. How can HMRF practitioners deliver content using the principles of adult learning theory to strengthen program engagement and help participants achieve their desired outcomes?

Many healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood (HMRF) programs face challenges keeping participants engaged in voluntary workshop sessions and helping them achieve their desired outcomes. Adult learning theory highlights several important principles for optimizing participants’ engagement in learning experiences and helping participants master program content. HMRF practitioners can use these principles to address common challenges and improve the effectiveness of their programs.


This paper explores how adult learning theory might inform HMRF programming so it can be more engaging and, in turn, more successful in supporting family well-being. Adult learning theory aims to explain the processes by which adults gain knowledge, skills, and abilities. It distinguishes these from the processes by which children learn. In this paper, we describe key principles of adult learning theory and articulate strategies based on these principles that HMRF programs can use to support participants’ engagement and learning.  

Key Findings and Highlights

The first section of the paper describes the HMRF program context, including participants’ background and skills, the services programs offer, and common challenges programs face in achieving their desired outcomes. Programs typically serve people from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and offer group-based workshops designed to improve participants’ marriage and relationship skills, parenting skills, and sometimes their economic stability. Many programs find it challenging to keep participants engaged in voluntary workshop sessions and help them achieve desired outcomes.

The second section of the paper summarizes the key principles of adult learning theory. We describe seven common principles about what matters most for adults to learn successfully: (1) relevance, (2) self-direction, (3) motivation, (4) application, (5) experience, (6) reflection, and (7) emotion. These principles can be applied in the HMRF program context to help participants learn more effectively.

The third section of the paper builds on the seven principles of adult learning, and on what we know about the delivery context and challenges HMRF programs face, to offer five strategies that HMRF programs could pursue to bolster clients’ participation and outcomes. These five strategies are:

  1. Show participants how program content is relevant to them
  2. Leverage program format to support self-direction
  3. Build opportunities for participants to practice new skills, both during the program and on their own
  4. Create opportunities for participants to reflect on their experiences and beliefs as part of the learning process
  5. Create a positive emotional climate

Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of issues that HMRF practitioners and stakeholders might consider when adopting these strategies. These issues include the skills and capabilities of facilitators, the amount of time needed to implement the strategies, and how to embed strategies within existing curricula.  


To identify key principles and practices of adult learning, we conducted a review of the theoretical and empirical literature. We began by identifying four foundational theories of adult learning based on a recent synthesis of adult learning theory and practice (Merriam and Bierema 2014). These theories include: (1) andragogy, (2) experiential learning, (3) self-directed learning, and (4) transformative learning. We then conducted two separate literature searches: a theoretical search and an empirical search. We screened all our results for relevance, which yielded 36 sources. Next, we vetted our search procedures and results with two expert consultants on adult learning. Their recommendations yielded 31 additional sources. Finally, we reviewed these 67 sources using a protocol to extract key information on adult learning principles and practices, study design, and applicability to the HMRF program context.


Alamillo, J., Person, A.E., Washburn, L., and Gordon, H. (2021). Applying Insights from Adult Learning Theory to Improve Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Programming. OPRE Report 2021-###. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.