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:

Pedagogy Andragogy
Self-Concept Dependency Increasing self-directedness
Experience Of little worth Learners are a rich resource for learning
Readiness Biological development - social pressures Developmental tasks of social roles
Time perspective Postponed application Immediacy of application
Orientation to learning Subject centered Problem centered
Learning Climate Authority oriented
Planning By teacher Mutual self-diagnosis
Formulation of objectives By teacher Mutual negotiation
Design Logic of the subject matter
Content Units
Sequenced in terms of readiness
Problem Units
Activities Transmittal techniques Experiential techniques (inquiry)
Evaluation By teacher Mutual re-diagnosis of needs
Mutual measurement of program

Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning:

Andragogical Principles: Characteristics of Adult Learners:

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 process.
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 concerns.
14.  The adult learner values himself as an adult more than he values a program.

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 or grader.

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.

Key Factors Found in Successful Adult Learning Programs:

    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

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.

Curriculum Design

Teaching Delivery in the Classroom

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