This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Skip Navigation skip menu and banner
University of Wyoming

Howard Y. McClusky

Power Load Margin

A Theory for Adult Learners

Variables | Margin | Illustrations of the Formula | Hierarchy | Conditions for Learning | Barriers to Learning | References | Quotes from the Theorist | Definitions

The basic Power Load Margin formula

Load / Power= Margin

Load is the demands made on a person by self and society, and power is the resources a person commands to cope with the load.

Load Interacting Variables

  • external- tasks involved in usual requirements of living: family, work, civic duties
  • internal- life expectancies set by the individual: self-tolerance, goals, ideals, values

Power Interacting Variables

  • external- resources such as physical health, social contacts, economic wealth
  • internal- acquired skills and life experiences such as resiliency, coping skills


  • the relationship between load and power
  • essential to the mental hygiene of the adult
  • the surplus power available to a person over and beyond that required to handle their load
  • a power of choice over a range of alternatives (options) and the maintenance of a broad field of life space
  • allows a person to invest in life expansion projects and learning experiences
  • the adult must be prepared to meet unpredictable crises which make unusual demands on the ability to respond and possess a reserve margin

Since margin is the relationship between load and power, it may be increased by reducing the load or increasing the power. When load continually matches or exceeds power, and if both are fixed and/or out of control, the person becomes highly vulnerable and susceptible to breakdown.

Illustrations of the Formula

4(load)/2(power) = margin Breaking point- crisis in offing

7(load)/7(power) = margin Breaking even- barely hanging in there

2(load)/4(power) = margin Surplus- life space within which to maneuver

McClusky describes a range of educational needs similar to Maslow's hierarchy; however, these needs should not be interpreted rigidly or be seen as vertically progressive. The hierarchy is a general framework within which learning options and margins may be examined.

Hierarchy of Educational Needs of the Aging Adult

Coping Needs include education for:

  • making legal decisions
  • selection of housing
  • changing family relations
  • leisure time

Other coping needs:

  • physical fitness and health
  • economic self-sufficiency
  • basic education (3 R's)


Large domain of unexpressed and under expressed talent, which, if properly cultivated, could be activated to enrich one's living.


  • exprerience the need to give
  • desire to be useful and wanted
  • desire to be of service
  • desire to share the cumulative experience of one's life with others


  • need to arrest or reverse declining power
  • need to exert influence in the personal realm
  • need to be an agent of constructive social change


  • from body preoccupation to body transcendence
  • desire to achieve a sense of fulfillment
  • desire to live with meaning, generously and unselfishly

Conditions for Effective Adult Learning:

1. Active Participation

2. Problem-Centered Learning

a. has direct bearing on learner's experience

b. provides insight into relationship

c. presents relevant issues and data

d. opens problem to observation

3. Meaningful Learning

4. Autonomous Learning

Barriers to Learning:

1. Unexpected loss of margin (loss of job, relocation, illness, loss of spouse)

2. Time allocation (must find scattered moments he/she can control)

3. Resistance to learning

a. prior obligations of adult living take precedence

b. personality set

c. unwillingness to admit the need for change

d. unwillingness to risk uncertainty of the "new"

e. unwillingness to reorient life's commitments

4. Adult concept of non-learner

a. adult and society see adult as non-learner

b. adult roles ingrained (work, family, civic roles are set)

c. role of adult as constant learner not well accepted

5. Declining sense of discovery

a. repetitive life - inclination to explore new frontiers atrophies

b. more a reflection of the adult condition than adult potential



Main, K. (1979). The power-load-margin formula of Howard Y. McClusky as the basis for a model of teaching. Adult Education. Fall 1979. Volume 30, No. 1. pp. 19-33

Additional Resources

The following journal article is available through Coe Library and provides interesting additional reading:

Kaplan, P.L. and Saltiel, I. M. (1997) "Adults who do it all." Adult Learning.May/August 1997, vol. 8. p. 17 (3)

Direct Quotes from the Theorist

About His Theory

[The use of sexist language is a relection of the time period in which McClusky published.]

McClusky describes the intricate environment of the adult learner as follows:

In a rapidly changing society an adult, to survive and develop, must continue to learn. What he learns and how he does so, depends upon the stage he occupies in his life cycle and upon the suitability of the learning situation to the learning potentialities and learning handicaps he has at that state . . . The strategies for learning (and for teaching) in the adult years require consideration for the individuality of adults, for their life commitments which may aid or obstruct learning, for their adult time perspective, for their transition through critical periods of life, for their acquired sets and roles which may aid or obstruct learning, and for their adult requirement that the learning be relevant to their problems.

McClusky, Howard Y. "The Adult As Learner." In Management of the Urban Crisis, ed. McNeil & Seashore. New York: The Free Press, 1971. p. 514

For successful participation in a learning experience, the learner must be able to access and implement a margin of energy that may exist in the life process above bare subsistence. McClusky offers two illustrations:

First, I have an image of Mrs. A., a mother and the only adult in a poorly furnished home with four children at school and two at home, barely holding the line against family breakdown. Fighting a continual battle for survival, she has no margin for the P.T.A., the night school sewing class, or the inner-city neighborhood committee organized to cooperate with local programs of urban renewal.

For our second example let us sketch a more optimistic picture. Mr. C is in the prime of his middle years, in good physical condition, with competence in his profession, with substantial influence in the community, and with access to ample financial resources. Mr. C carries a large load which is a reflection of his powers. If his load is just a notch under his capacity, it might appear that his margin is small, but at any time and at his own discretion, Mr. C can reduce his load and hence his margin may be regarded as ample.

- - - . "A Dynamic Approach to Participation in Community Development." Journal of Community Development Society, 1970. P.28

The PLM model hypothesizes that the individual must maintain a "surplus" or "margin" of power in excess of load. If education is appropriately implemented, McClusky believes it can be a primary force in the achievement of an adequate margin:

Thus the pre-eminent and universal educational need of the aging is the need for that kind of education that will assist them in creating margins of power for the attainment and maintenance of well-being and continuing growth toward self-fulfillment.

- - - . "Education for Aging: The Scope of the Field and Perspectives for the Future." Learning for Aging, ed. Grabowski & Mason. Washington D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse, n.d. p. 330

Ideally, the learner will explore, be aware of, and capitalize on alternate ways to increase individual margin of power in order to maintain a broad field of life space. McClusky observes:

In any given instant, the ratio of load to power may leave resources under an individual's control, but mere possession will not tell us to what extent or to what ends this advantage will be used.

- - - . "A Dynamic Approach to Participation in Community Development." Journal of Community Development Society. (1970), p. 29

McClusky believes a primary share of a learner's psychological experience is concerned with the self; therefore, the self-construct and ego involvement are of vital importance to him or her, and McClusky observes:

Objects of greatest interest are located in the inner region closest to the center of the self-system, while objects of lesser interest occupy positions in the outer regions representing areas of diminishing concern. We might visualize this arrangement as a series of concentric circles with the core self in the center circle with less intense aspects of the self in the outer circles.

- - - . "A Dynamic Approach to Participation in Community Development." Journal of Community Development Society. (1970), p. 30

McClusky's definitions:

Adult: A person who has come into that stage of life in which he has assumed responsibility for himself and usually for others, and who has concomitantly accepted a functionally productive role in his community.

Adult Education: A relationship between an educational agent and a learner in which the agent selects, arranges, and continuously directs a sequence of progressive tasks that provide systematic experiences to achieve learning for those whose participation in such activity is subsidiary and supplemental to a primary productive role in society.

Program in Adult Education: A series of learning experiences designed to achieve, in a specified period of time, certain specific instructional objectives for an adult or a group of adults.

Objective of the Learner: The objectives of the learner arise out of his awareness of his need for learning in order to face his changing responsibilities and to maintain himself in reasonable adjustment with an ever changing society.

Educational Agent: The educational institution and the management of the learning situation structure to achieve specific learning objectives.

McClusky, Howard Y. "The Adult As Learner." In Management of the Urban Crisis, ed. McNeil & Seashore. New York: The Free Press, 1971. pp. 27-39