Andragogy – Adult Learning

Andragogy is known by many different names. It is oriented towards adults, who tend to learn differently based upon what they want to know. Unlike children, adults tend to be task-oriented, self-directed, and seeking knowledge relevant to their job or life. Adults also tend toward informal education, that being outside the classroom, and are more likely to develop life long learning habits.

The concept isn’t new, although many people may be familiar with the term because of Malcolm Knowles, and his work to create a learning theory specific to adults. The term “andragogical” was first coined by Alexander Kapp in 1833 in his work to describe the education theory developed by Plato. However, the term was not in widespread use in the United States until Eduard Lindeman used andragogy in his book, “The Meaning of Adult Education”, published in 1926. Lindeman was a major contributor to adult education research.

Most adult educators are more familiar with the work of Malcolm Knowles, who despite Lindeman’s work, is often considered the father of what we know today as Adult Education.

The question then is, “What is adult education?” What makes education or learning specific to adults?

Lindeman suggested that adult education is focused toward non-vocational ideals, meaning learning which is not specific to the individuals day to day pursuits, but more focused on developing the civic or public responsibility in the individual. Accomplishing this meant a change from focusing on situations, instead of subjects. This was a major distinction between traditional classroom based learning where subjects are presented by a teacher, with the expectation the knowledge be absorbed by the learner.

Lindeman also proposed the most important aspect to adult education is the experience the learner brings with them to the educational event.

Malcom Knowles attempted to bring additional clarity to the differences between pedagogy (traditional learning for children) and andragogy. Knowles presented five major assumptions: self-concept; experience; a readiness to learn; a learning orientation; and a motivation to learn.

Knowles’ Five Assumptions of Andragogy
Knowles proposed these five assumptions as he believed they were different from children and contributed to the adult learning process.

These are:
Self concept – Adults generally have a need to be self-directing, although temporary situations may make them more dependent upon the instructor;
Experience – People generally attach more meaning and value to knowledge they require through experience than through passive interaction;
Readiness to Learn – Adults decide they need to learn when they experience a problem or some issue with which they are unfamiliar;
Orientation to Learning – Adults are more focused on their performance in the learning process and their focus on the learning;
Motivation to Learn – These preceding assumptions affect the adult’s motivations. They consider their experience to deal with a new problem, and when their experience comes up short, they seek out the learning opportunities to help them overcome the problem.

The adult assimilates this new knowledge into their existing pool and discovers new ways of applying that knowledge to other situations. Additionally, they consider new questions, leading to ongoing learning through a self-directed, self-discovery process.

The Principles of Andragogy
A major part of Knowles’ theory are the principles of andragogy. Unlike children, adults want to be involved in planning their instruction and the evaluation of their progress. Additionally, adults believe their experience should have an impact on their learning process. Let’s consider the principles proposed by Knowles.

Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

This principle sets the stage for a key element in an adult learning program. Adults want to know what they are going to learn, how it will be presented and how they will be evaluated. They want to get to the heart of the content, understand what they want to know, and feel they are being evaluated fairly. However, they also want to be involved in setting the topics and content to be discussed, based upon their experiences and what they are having problems with. This can create challenges for the instructor conducting the training.

Experience, including mistakes, provides the basis for learning activities.

Everyone has some degree of experience with a given subject, ranging from little to none, or advanced. Factoring in ways to bring the experience of the student into the classroom is important. For example, pairing a more experienced person with a less experienced person can provide benefit to both. The more experienced learner gets to practice communicating their experience and the less experienced person gets to benefit from their experience. Another method would be to ensure people of all experience levels have the opportunity to participate in group discussions.

Adults are most interested in learning subjects which have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.

At some point, we shift was learning for the sake of learning, to learning to solve a problem we are currently experiencing. For example, the experienced programmer who is learning a new programming language may understand the fundamentals of the language, but is asking the question “I know how to do this in programming language A, how do I do it in programming language B?” They don’t want to start at the beginning, but dive into the content at the point where their question arises.

Adult learning problem centered, rather than content centered.

This is a continuation of the previous principle. When we are young, learning is conducted by focusing our attention on the content. As we get older, we shift to a problem oriented view. We often start asking this question in high school. I bet you wondered when you were ever going to use algebra or geometry or calculus. This is the challenge, the content centered approach does not often explain why we need to know the content. The problem oriented approach presents the problem, and then the content to solve the problem. For example, if you are interested in woodworking, then you will need to understand elements of geometry and math to validate the project you are building will be square and at the same time aesthetically pleasing.

The Role of the Instructor
Using a andralogical approach requires the educator take a different approach. The educator needs to spend more time up front understanding the experience level of the students and diagnosing what the learner’s want to know on a given subject.

As part of the diagnosis, the educator should work with the students to understand what their needs are from the training and adapting the content to cover the required elements and where possible expanding it to address the specific topics raised by the students. If only a few students are interested in a specific item, then the educator could work with them to perform some other project or adapt an existing assignment to cover their interest.

These factors affect how the educator will approach the teaching process. The educator may need to adjust the learning strategies for the content based upon how the students prefer to learn. Finally, working with the students to develop the evaluation approach, means they are involved in assessing their performance and helps the learner feel positive about their evaluation.

When should we Use Andragogy?
Andragogy is often used in any situation where adults are involved. Specifically, organizational development and training, professional development, case studies, role playing, simulations, self-evaluations and web-based online learning.

Andragogy is also appropriate in any self-directed learning situation. This is because the self-directed learner chooses the path which is of the most interest to them. It places the learner on the road to self discovery, and allows them to be curious about topics they start with, and new topics they discover along the way.

Adult learners will accept an evaluation of their progress, provided they think it is a fair evaluation of the learning. Self-directed learning can be difficult to assess on a “test”, so many self-directed learning settings often have no formal evaluation, and where attendance is voluntary.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Like any learning theory, there are strengths and weaknesses. The strengths associated with this theory are:

Self-discovery — The learner is encouraged to identify what they want to learn and explore not only that topic, but to be curious about new topics they discover on their journey.
Experiential learning — This takes into account the experience the learner already has in a given content area, and allows them to build on that experience.
Problem solving approach — The emphasis being on the problem the training is expected to solve, and not the content
Learning is relevant to the task, job or situation — Because it is relevant, or the learner deems it relevant, they are motivated to complete the training. As soon as the content seems irrelevant to the problem at hand, they will stop the learning experience.

The weaknesses of the theory are:
Formal vs. Informal education — The theory places formal and informal education at odds with each other. Formal education being that which is taught in school, and informal being what is learned through experience or self-directed learning.
The burden is on the adult learner’s initiative — Self-directed learning is a major theme in their theory, but not the only one. The weakness here is that if the adult learner gets off track or starts to fall behind, their motivation decreases, just as it does when they no longer deem the content relevant to their problem.

A Final Word
Why does andragogy have to pit formal and informal education against each other? People of different ages learn differently. The question is when does that transition takes place? I would suggest the transition starts to happen in high school, even though the emphasis remains on the content and not the problem the content is trying to solve.

If educators start to introduce the problem earlier, and then demonstrate how the content we want them to learn solves the problem, we might have more kids who gravitate to content they might not have otherwise.

For example, do you remember thinking in high school “why do need to learn ”, only to find out later in life that you wished you paid more attention? If as educators we spend more time demonstrating to our students why the content is important, the problem it is intended to solve, and even the careers where this information in important, we might help shape the learner’s thinking.


Andragogy: what is it and does it help thinking about adult learning? Retrieved online from

Andragogy (Malcolm Knowles) Retrieved online from

Eduard C. Lindeman and the meaning of adult education Retrieved online from

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