Adult learning theory (andragogy)

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Table I, created from studies and research in the field, describes the ideal environment and principles for adult learning (Ozuah, 2005, p. 86).
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See also ADDIE model | Behaviourism | Constructivism | Informal learning | Malcolm Knowles | Teaching library users | Transformative learning

" learners know their needs and, in a pragmatic way pursue knowledge according to their needs..." – Knowles, 2005
"...sapere aude is the Latin phrase meaning "Dare to know" or "dare to be wise"

Adult learning theory (androgogy) belongs to a long history of educational pedagogies. While the American educator Malcolm Knowles popularized androgogy the idea itself was first described by Alexander Kapp back in the 19th century. The term was revived in the early twentieth century (1921, to be exact) but did not appear officially in a dictionary until the mid-1980s. Today, adult learning or androgogy is generally considered separately from other pedagogies and distinguished by its focus on adult learners in the workplace, and in training contexts. Many believe adult learners learn best in interactive classrooms with an emphasis on practical application of concepts. Adults seek the type of learning that won't compromise family or work commitments. As Merriam and Caffarella say, Knowles' concept was an attempt to build a comprehensive theory of adult learning anchored by the characteristics of adult learners. In contrast to pedagogy, andragogy is defined by Knowles (1980) as "the art and science of helping adults learn". He labeled andragogy as an emerging 'technology' (an idea that recalls Wenger's technology of the self) which facilitates the development of learning for adults. The concept of andragogy can be traced back to Plato and his teacher, Socrates. Throughout Europe, andragogy has grown in popularity and when it was introduced to Malcolm Knowles, he advocated for its acceptance. Knowles is often referred to as the father of adult learning.

Five andragogical assumptions of the adult learner

The emerging technology (as described by Knowles) is based on five andragogical assumptions of the adult learner:

  1. Self-Concept: As a person matures, he or she moves from dependency to self-directedness.
  2. Experience: Adults draw on their experiences to aid their learning.
  3. Readiness: The learning readiness of adults is closely related to the assumption of new social roles.
  4. Orientation: As a person learns new knowledge, he or she wants to apply it immediately in problem solving.
  5. Motivation (Later added): As a person matures, he or she receives their motivation to learn from internal factors.

Adult learning broadly

Knowles' five assumptions link to the learning theories of other educationists. In 1999, Merriam and Caffarella discussed three keys to transformational learning: experience, critical reflection and development. Experience (the second assumption in andragogy) is important for it creates an effective learning environment for adults. Argote, McEvily, and Reagans (2003) point to experience as a critical factor in developing one’s ability to create, retain and transfer knowledge. Critical reflection is the second key to transformational and self-directed learning. Reflection/think time is another essential principle for effective learning experiences. Garvin (1993) shares the importance of fostering an environment conducive to learning including time for reflection and analysis. Adult learners need time to contemplate their learning experiences. The third key to transformational learning is development (corresponding to the third assumption of andragogy). Merriam and Caffarella say that “the ability to think critically, mandatory for transformation, is itself developmental” (p. 330). If development is the outcome of transformational learning, then an effective adult learning opportunity needs to be created that will take personal development into consideration.

Design elements of adult learning

Andragogy assumes the following about the design elements of learning:

  • Adults have the need to know why they are learning something.
  • Adults learn by doing.
  • Adults are problem-solvers.
  • Adults learn best when skills/topics are of immediate use.

Who is the adult learner?

Adult learners are usually concerned with:

  • Meaningful work
  • Personal and family health
  • Keeping current; increasing competencies at work
  • Effective interpersonal skills
  • Doing something
  • Gaining something
  • Current family, personal and social responsibilities
  • Independence

Challenges in working with adult learners

  • Unlearning old knowledge
  • Adjusting to class format
  • Inability to focus on topics
  • Weak study or critical thinking skills
  • Unrealistic goals
  • Time constraints/commitments
  • Low self-esteem

When designing instruction for adults consider:

  • Why do the adults under your care and tutelage want to learn?
  • Adults need to learn experientially; avoid overly theoretical approaches
  • It might be worthwhile to approach the topic as a problem-solving exercise
  • Repeatedly emphasize the relevance of the topic to the real world
  • Involve the adults in the planning, learning and evaluation of the ideas
  • Adults will need to process and reflect on content for it to "stick"

Learning or training?

Some say Knowles introduced a theory of teaching rather than a theory of learning. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) refer to Hartree who says that "whether Knowles presented a theory of learning or a theory of teaching, whether adult learning is different from child learning, and whether there is a theory at all -- perhaps these are principles of good practice" (p. 273). Did Knowles articulate a theory or a "set of well-grounded principles of good practice"? (Brookfield, 1986, p. 98). “Within companies, instructional methods are designed for improving adult learners’ knowledge and skills. It is important to distinguish the unique attributes of adult learners so as to be able to incorporate the principles of adult learning in the design of instruction” (Yi, 2005, p. 34).

Adult learning is aimed at improving individual knowledge and organizational performance by the direct transfer of learning to the work itself. Yi suggests three methods to foster learning in organizations: problem-based learning which seeks to increase problem-solving and critical thinking; cooperative learning, which builds communication and interpersonal skills; and situated learning, which targets specific technical skills directly related to work (Yi, 2005). Each of these methods supports assumptions about how adults learn; specifically they are more self-directed, have a need for direct application to their work, and contribute to collaborative learning through experience.



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