Adult Learning Theory
Malcolm S. Knowles' theory of andragogy is a learning theory that is developed
on the specific needs of adults. In contrast to pedagogy, or learning in
childhood, Knowles emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to
take responsibility for decisions. Adult learning programs must accommodate
this fundamental aspect. The following chart summarizes the assumptions
and processes of pedagogy and adragogy:
||Of little worth
||Learners are a rich resource for learning
||Biological development - social pressures
||Developmental tasks of social roles
||Immediacy of application
|Orientation to learning
|Formulation of objectives
||Logic of the subject matter
|Sequenced in terms of readiness
||Experiential techniques (inquiry)
||Mutual re-diagnosis of needs
Mutual measurement of program
Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning:
- Adults need to know why they need to learn something
- Adults need to learn experientially
- Adults approach learning as problem-solving
- Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.
Characteristics of Adult Learners:
- Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their
- Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning
- Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate
relevance to their job or personal life.
- Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
1. The adult learner usually has an identifiable purpose.
2. The adult learner usually has had earlier experiences, both positive
and negative, with organized education.
3. The adult learner wants immediate usefulness of his learning.
4. The adult learner's self-concept is one of self-direction.
5. The adult learner brings with him a reservoir of experiences.
6. The adult learner brings extensive doubts and fears to the educational
7. The adult learner is usually very strong to the resistance of change.
8. The adult learner's style is usually set.
9. The adult learner has "adult goals".
10. The adult learner's problems are different from children's problems.
11. The adult learner usually has an established family.
12. The adult learner's reaction time is often slow.
13. The adult learner's educational interest usually reflects vocational
14. The adult learner values himself as an adult more than he values
In practical terms, andragogy means that instruction for adults needs
to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies
such as case
studies, role playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are most useful.
Instructors adopt a role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer
Knowles (1984, Appendix D) provides an example of applying andragogy principles
to the design of personal computer training:
Research study results reveal that adults can and do experience significant
personal growth at midlife. However, adult students grew significantly only
in one type of learning environment; they tended not to grow or to regress
in another type.
- There is a need to explain why specific things are being taught (e.g.,
certain commands, functions, operations, etc.)
- Instruction should be task-oriented instead of memorization -- learning
activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed.
- Instruction should take into account the wide range of different
backgrounds of learners; learning materials and activities should allow
for different levels/types of previous experience with computers.
- Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to
discover things for themselves, providing guidance and help when mistakes
Key Factors Found in Successful Adult Learning Programs:
- An environment where students feel safe and supported, where individual
needs and uniqueness are honored, where abilities and life achievements
are acknowledged and respected.
- An environment that fosters intellectual freedom and encourages
experimentation and creativity.
- An environment where faculty treats adult students as peers--accepted
and respected as intelligent experienced adults whose opinions are listened
to, honored, appreciated. Such faculty members often comment that they
learn as much from their students as the students learn from them.
- Self-directed learning, where students take responsibility for their
own learning. They work with faculty to design individual learning programs
which address what each person needs and wants to learn in order to function
optimally in their profession.
- Pacing, or intellectual challenge. Optimal pacing is challenging people
just beyond their present level of ability. If challenged too far beyond,
people give up. If challenged too little, they become bored and learn
- Active involvement in learning, as opposed to passively listening to
lectures. Where students and instructors interact and dialogue, where
students try out new ideas in the workplace, where exercises and experiences
are used to bolster facts and theory, adults grow more.
- Regular feedback mechanisms for students to tell faculty what works
best for them and what they want and need to learn--and faculty who hear
and make changes based on student input.
In contrast, in learning programs where students feel
unsafe and threatened, where they are viewed as underlings, life achievements
not honored, those students tend to regress developmentally, especially
in self-esteem and self-confidence. In programs where students are required
to take identical lockstep courses, whether relevant to professional goals
or not, grow less. In other words, students grow more in student-centered
as opposed to faculty-centered programs.
Motivation of Adult Learners:
The following have been found as motivators to adult learning:
Barriers to Motivation
- Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for associations
- External expectations: to comply with instructions from someone else;
to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal
- Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service
to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work.
- Personal advancement: to achieve higher status in a job, secure
professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors.
- Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine
of home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life.
- Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge
for its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind.
Unlike children and teenagers, adults have many responsibilities that
they must balance against the demands of learning. Because of these responsibilities,
adults have barriers against participating in learning. Some of these barriers
include lack of time, money, confidence, or interest, lack of information
about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, "red tape," and problems
with child care and transportation.
Teaching Delivery in the Classroom
- Adult learners tend to be less interested in, and enthralled by, survey
courses. They tend to prefer single concept, single-theory courses that
focus heavily on the application of the concept to relevant problems.
This tendency increases with age.
- Adults need to be able to integrate new ideas with what they already
know if they are going to keep - and use - the new information.
- Information that conflicts sharply with what is already held to be
true, and thus forces a re-evaluation of the old material, is integrated
- Information that has little "conceptual overlap" with what is already
known is acquired slowly.
- Adults tend to take errors personally and are more likely to let them
affect self-esteem. Therefore, they tend to apply tried-and-true solutions
and take fewer risks.
- The curriculum designer must know whether the concepts or ideas will
be in concert or in conflict with the learner. Some instruction must be
designed to effect a change in belief and value systems.
- Adults prefer self-directed and self-designed learning projects over
group-learning experiences led by a professional, they select more than
one medium for learning, and they desire to control pace and start/stop
- Nonhuman media such as books, programmed instruction and television
have become popular with adults in recent years.
- Regardless of media, straightforward how-to is the preferred content
orientation. Adults cite a need for application and how-to information
as the primary motivation for beginning a learning project.
- Self-direction does not mean isolation. Studies of self-directed learning
indicate that self-directed projects involve an average of 10 other people
as resources, guides, encouragers and the like. But even for the self-professed,
self-directed learner, lectures and short seminars get positive ratings,
especially when these events give the learner face-to-face, one-to-one
access to an expert.
- The learning environment must be physically and psychologically
comfortable; long lectures, periods of interminable sitting and the absence
of practice opportunities rate high on the irritation scale.
- Adults have something real to lose in a classroom situation. Self-esteem
and ego are on the line when they are asked to risk trying a new behavior
in front of peers and cohorts. Bad experiences in traditional education,
feelings about authority and the preoccupation with events outside the
classroom affect in-class experience.
- Adults have expectations, and it is critical to take time early on
to clarify and articulate all expectations before getting into content.
The instructor can assume responsibility only for his or her own expectations,
not for those of students.
- Adults bring a great deal of life experience into the classroom, an
invaluable asset to be acknowledged, tapped and used. Adults can learn
well-and much - from dialogue with respected peers.
- Instructors who have a tendency to hold forth rather than facilitate
can hold that tendency in check--or compensate for it--by concentrating
on the use of open-ended questions to draw out relevant student knowledge
- New knowledge has to be integrated with previous knowledge; students
must actively participate in the learning experience. The learner is dependent
on the instructor for confirming feedback on skill practice; the instructor
is dependent on the learner for feedback about curriculum and in-class
- The key to the instructor role is control. The instructor must balance
the presentation of new material, debate and discussion, sharing of relevant
student experiences, and the clock. Ironically, it seems that instructors
are best able to establish control when they risk giving it up. When they
shelve egos and stifle the tendency to be threatened by challenge to plans
and methods, they gain the kind of facilitative control needed to effect
- The instructor has to protect minority opinion, keep disagreements
civil and unheated, make connections between various opinions and ideas,
and keep reminding the group of the variety of potential solutions to
the problem. The instructor is less advocate than orchestrator.
- Integration of new knowledge and skill requires transition time and
focused effort on application.
- Learning and teaching theories function better as resources than as
rules. An eclectic, rather than a single theory-based approach to developing
strategies and procedures, is recommended for matching instruction to
Knowles, M. S. et al (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles
of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
web reference site of
Nan B. Adams, PhD
Southeastern Louisiana University