Andragogy – Adult Learning Theory (Knowles)

Summary: Andragogy refers to a theory of adult learning that details some of the ways in which adults learn differently than children. For example, adults tend to be more self-directed, internally motivated, and ready to learn. Teachers can draw on concepts of andragogy to increase the effectiveness of their adult education classes.

Originator: Malcom Shepherd Knowles (1913-1997)

Keywords: learning, learning theory, adults, education, self-directive, self-concept, experiences, readiness, motivation, content, process, practical learning

Andragogy (Adult Learning Theory)

Andragogy, also known as adult learning theory, was proposed by Malcom Shepard Knowles in 1968.[i] Previously, much research and attention had been given to the concept of pedagogy – teaching children. Knowles recognized that there are many differences in the ways that adults learn as opposed to children. His thoughts surrounding andragogy sought to capitalize on the unique learning styles and strengths of adult learners.

Knowles’ Five Assumptions of Adult Learners

Knowles theory of andragogy identified five assumptions that teachers should make about adult learners.

  1. Self-Concept – Because adults are at a mature developmental stage, they have a more secure self-concept than children. This allows them to take part in directing their own learning.
  2. Past Learning Experience – Adults have a vast array of experiences to draw on as they learn, as opposed to children who are in the process of gaining new experiences.
  3. Readiness to Learn – Many adults have reached a point in which they see the value of education and are ready to be serious about and focused on learning.
  4. Practical Reasons to Learn – Adults are looking for practical, problem-centered approaches to learning. Many adults return to continuing education for specific practical reasons, such as entering a new field.
  5. Driven by Internal Motivation – While many children are driven by external motivators – such as punishment if they get bad grades or rewards if they get good grades – adults are more internally motivated.

Four Principles of Andragogy

Based on these assumptions about adult learners, Knowles discussed four principles that educators should consider when teaching adults.

  1. Since adults are self-directed, they should have a say in the content and process of their learning.
  2. Because adults have so much experience to draw from, their learning should focus on adding to what they have already learned in the past.
  3. Since adults are looking for practical learning, content should focus on issues related to their work or personal life.
  4. Additionally, learning should be centered on solving problems instead of memorizing content.

Current Applications  

In later years, Knowles would recognize that some points in his theory did not apply to all adults. In addition, some of what he wrote about education could also apply to children. He began to see learning on a spectrum between teacher-directed and student-directed. In his later work, he emphasized how each situation should be assessed on an individual basis to determine how much self-direction would be helpful for students.

Andragogy has received critique over the years, as some of its assumptions have not been empirically proven.[ii] However, many researchers believe that the self-directed approach to learning discussed by Knowles is applicable in a number of settings.

For example, online learning can benefit from Knowle’s discussion of self-directive learning, as students often receive less supervision from teachers in an online environment.

Other researchers have used androgagy to consider how lectures can become more effective modes of learning through more actively engaging adult students. For example, teachers can use Socratic dialogue, small group discussions, and student-led teaching to make lectures more self-directive and engaging.[iii]


[i] Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. Merriam, S. B. (Ed.), The new update on adult learning theory: New directions for adult and continuing education. (pp.1-13)

[ii] Blondy, L.C. (2007). Evaluation and application of andragogical assumptions to the adult online learning environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6(2), 116-130

[iii] Palis, A. G. & Quiros, P. A. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Opthamology, 21(2), 114-122.