Book by Sharan B.Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, & Lisa M. Baumgartner
Review by Michael H. Turpin
Director of Student Services
Kilgore College

In the reorganized and updated third edition of this classic text, Sharan Merriam and Rosemary Caffarella are joined by Lisa Baumgartner in reporting what is known about the adult learner the 21st century. Their basic focus is not unlike the previous editions from 1991 and 1999: Learning is influenced by the specific life context of the adult and by the society in which that adult lives. Moreover, adult learning is personal and unique; and theorists continue to expand the explanation of common themes which influence that learning.

The authors have organized their presentation in four sections which address the context of learning in adulthood, adult learning theories, nontraditional perspectives of adult learning, and other issues related to adult development. Throughout the text, the authors consistently balance the classic with the contemporary. Along with traditional theories of andragogy and margin, the authors present newer perspectives of spirituality and non-western thought. Their presentation of contemporary thought and research from the last decade is skillfully woven throughout the text, rather than simply being tacked on as supplements to chapters from previous editions. Contemporary topics include transformational learning in human resource development, the use of reflective practice and cognitive apprenticeships, and the use of blogs as narrative learning.  

In general, the text is well-organized into categories and is easily readable. The authors balance their presentation with both the merits and criticism of various perspectives. Continuity is achieved in the text as they make connections among various theories, models, and concepts throughout, often relating new material to topics previously presented, such as the authors’ connecting narrative learning with the earlier presented concept of transformational learning. Likewise, their section on non-western perspectives adds credence to the issue of globalization as a major contextual concept within which adult learning occurs, a topic from the opening section of the book.

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner write that the present edition has been reorganized to align with the common presentation of material in an adult learning course (p. xi). While the primary target audience may be college students, this comprehensive text is also appropriate for anyone who is involved with adult learners. “Knowing who participates in adult education activities and why adults are participating (or not) is necessary information for both providers and policymakers.” (p. 53) Those wanting to read more about adult learning will be pleased to find over 60 pages of references as well as extensive name and subject indexes in this edition.

Those involved with academic advising may find the amount of information in this comprehensive text a little overwhelming. Some may find the emphasis on research fascinating and enlightening, while others may see a lack of balance with the practical aspect of working with adult learners. In fact, the second edition’s chapter on integrating theory and practice is not included in the third edition. Some also may be disappointed to find that the chapter on ethics in adult learning has been omitted as well from the newest edition. Despite these concerns, the 3rd edition of this classic work continues the tradition of being an essential guide for anyone who works with adult learners at any level. Those serious about understanding adult learning and adult learners will find its contents indispensable.

Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). (2007) Book by Sharan B.Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, & Lisa M. Baumgartner, Review by Michael H. Turpin. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 533 pp., $52.00, (hardback), ISBN # 0-7879-7588-5
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