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What is Andragogy Adult Learning Theory?

Malcolm Knowles (1913-1977) was an influential American educator who popularised the term ‘andragogy’, the art and science of how adults learn. It describes the key characteristics of adult learners (as distinct from children ‘pedagogy’). It has become a highly influential adult learning theory and continues to shape learning design today.

Knowles developed the first four assumptions about how adults learn in 1980 and added the fifth in 1984.

Andragogy: The five assumptions

1. Self-concept

Adults are self-directed. They:

  • Are independent
  • Like to find their own way
  • Can make their own decisions
  • Want to manage their own learning

2. Experience

Adults have breadth and depth of experiences to draw on and apply to new learning. They:

  • Have diverse experience and knowledge
  • May have ingrained ideas about things
  • Use problem-solving, critical reflection and reasoning skills

3. Readiness

Adults want to learn things that are relevant in a real-to-life context. They:

  • Are goal focused
  • Want just-in-time learning
  • See value in meaningful learning experiences
  • Need a clear ‘why’ and ‘what’ for learning goals

4. Orientation

Adults are engaged by learning that is problem-centred and practical. They:

  • Are practical – learning should apply to their lives or job
  • Want to be involved in planning their learning
  • Focus on aspects that are most useful to them

5. Motivation

Adults are intrinsically motivated by various value-drivers (not simply more money!):

  • Job satisfaction
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of life
  • Personal growth and development

These assumptions recognise that there are differences in the ways adults learn from children. Andragogy focuses on the process of learning, rather than the product. It supports discovery-based learning, encouraging learners to construct their own understanding through problem-solving and collaboration with peers.

Respecting the principles of adult learning will help to engage and motivate participants. Keep Knowles’ 5 principles of adult learning top of mind when designing your programs.

Andragogy: Adult Learning Theory

Related blog articles:


Relevant blog articles:


  • Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
  • Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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