Andragogy: Adult Learning Theory

Written by: Constance Carlisle


Andragogy: Adult Learning Theory

The path to a finished eLearning course consists of a model, theory or some kind of combination. ADDIE, SAM and their many variations are design models that provide structure to building an eLearning experience. Learning theories provide how the content is presented. In other words, learning theories provide frameworks for how learners work with the information presented in an eLearning course. Learning theories enable Instructional Designers to make learning meaningful and engaging to learners with different learning styles. Several theories about how adults learn have evolved over the years. The most familiar of Adult Learning Theories is known as Andragogy.

A Bit of Andragogy History

In 1833, Alexander Kapp, a German educator used the term andragogy. Adult educators in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Yugoslavia were also using the term, andragogy. In 1926, Eduard Linderman introduced andragogy to the United States in his book, The Meaning of Adult Education. Linderman was an American educator, known for his contribution in adult education. He provided descriptions of many of the aspects or assumptions of andragogy.

In 1968, Knowles wrote a paper clarifying the difference between andragogy from pedagogy. In that paper, he labeled andragogy as “a new label and a new technology.” The timing of that paper was important. It was a reintroduction of andragogy to the United States. Knowles didn’t stop there. He continued writing and evolving his thoughts about andragogy and pedagogy. In 1980, he revised his book originally published in 1970, From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Knowles acknowledged that he had taken the phrase, andragogy from the European educators. In his 1989 memoir, he described in further detail about the first time he heard the term, andragogy. When talking about his adult learning theoretical framework with Yugoslavian educator, Dusan Savicevic called it andragogy.  Knowles also recognized Lindeman’s earlier writing on andragogy.

Knowles is not the originator of the term, andragogy. However, he reintroduced andragogy to the United States. He continuously published writings as he evolved his ideas on pedagogy and andragogy.  As a result, andragogy became the common term for adult learning theory.

Andragogy: Evolution of Principles

Andragogy is one of the New Age Learning Theories. A group of modern learning theories, combined with technology that has helped evolve the traditional adult learning experience.  Modern learning theories help guide Instructional Designers creating impactful eLearning courses for adults.

Andragogy was one of the first learning theories that emphasized adult learners are unique in that they learn differently from children. Because of its insights into adult learners, andragogy is often used in organizational training.

In 1980, Knowles provided 4 assumptions unique to adult learner characteristics. Knowles’ ideas on Andragogy continued to evolve. The original four assumption or principles have grown into six core andragogical principles. He added a 5th assumption in 1984 and the sixth was added later. The principle names and order are taken from The Adult Learner (Ninth Edition). I’ve also included variations I’ve found while researching for this article:

  1. Learner’s need to know (Relevant)
    Adults must understand why learning is important.
  2. Self-concept of the learner (Self-directed) (Learner controlled)Adults must feel in charge of their education.
  3. Prior experiences of the learner (Experience)
    Adults must expand on their prior knowledge.
  4. Readiness to learn (Timely)
    Adults are open to learning if it offers information they need right away, such as to improve job performance.
  5. Orientation to learning (Problem-solving) (Scenario or case-based)
    Adults prefer problem-focused instruction.
  6. Motivation to learn (Self-motivated) (Internally Motivated)
    Adults are intrinsically motivated to learn. Adults need to feel their eLearning experience meaningful and the content fulfills an internal motivation.

Andragogy: Practice Model Dimensions

In The Adult Learner (Ninth Edition), the Andragogy practice model provides more insight with the inclusion of the three dimensions of andragogy. Andragogical assumptions tend to look at adult learners all together in comparison with younger learners.  The dimensions bring attention to the differences among adult learners.

  • Goals and purposes for learning
  • Individual and situation differences
  • Andragogy: Core adult learning principles

Goals and Purposes for Learning
The reasons that adult learners take an eLearning course can vary. Andragogy practice model recognizes intrinsic reasons like having personal goals. Also recognized are the extrinsic reasons such as institutional and societal growth.

Adult learners’ goals and purposes are separate from the andragogical principles or assumptions. Knowles recognizes andragogical core principles will not always mesh with every eLearning course offered for different goals and purposes.

  • Goals for adult learners could be for advancing individual, institutional or societal growth.
  • Goals and purposes for adult learners are separate from the core andragogical assumptions.

Individual and situation differences are organized into the following categories:

  • Subject-matter differences
  • Situational differences
  • Individual learner differences

Applying Andragogy Six Principles to eLearning

Andragogy Principle 1: Learner’s need to know


Adults want to understand why content is important to them before they start learning the content. What problem does it solve? How will it help with some life problem or accomplish a task?

Applied to eLearning:

  • Do task analysis up front. This information can provide what learners want or need to know.
  • Provide content for the learners by using real-life scenarios or case studies. Doing so empowers learners to directly connect the content to their real lives.
  • State course objectives clearly and outline how each activity supports that objective. Clearly tell learners how or why the information will help them. This increases the chance that adult learners are motivated to try the course.
  • Include short lecture videos and implement group discussion forums if possible. Knowles points out the importance of a safe and diverse space for adult learners to have successful and productive communication.

Andragogy Principle 2: Self-concept of the learner

(self-directed learning) (Learner controlled) (Self-concept)

Adults must feel in charge of their education. Autonomous. Everyone, adults and younger learners want some say in what they learn and the process. Adults, in particular want to control their learning content and process. Adult learners have a self-concept that they own their decisions and are responsible for their lives.

Applied to eLearning:

Giving Learners control can include:

  • Use open navigation.
  • Include a welcome message to the eLearning program.
  • Provide guidance in place of instruction.
  • Enable learners to choose their own path through the content.
  • Build scenarios. Providing options to adult learners enables them to make their own decisions.
  • Use web links and videos.
  • Open discussions if possible. Discussion spaces must be safe, inclusive, and diverse for adult learners to experience successful communication.
  • Open ended questions is another option.
  • Get feedback. Adults want to be heard.

Androgogy Principle 3: Prior experiences
of the learner

(Experience) (Participation)

Adults can integrate new information through their unique life and work experiences. Consider what adult learners already know about the content.

Applied to eLearning:

  • Implement a learner analysis through a survey. Doing so can help design and develop eLearning content to best serve the adult learners.
  • Make content optional so more experienced learners can navigate to content they need to know.
  • Use adult learners’ previous experiences as connections to the new content.
  • Include an open discussion forum, if possible. Again, a diverse, inclusive, and safe space works best for adult learners. Creative group assignments provide learners a way to share their experiences in applying the new content to solve a problem.

Andragogy Principle 4: Readiness to learn


Adults are open to learning if it offers information they need right away, such as to improve job performance.

Applied to eLearning:

Eliminate the content that is not needed, but considered nice to know. If all the content is required, say for new employees, then make it optional for experienced learners. Keep the content timely, relevant to what adult learners need to know now.

Nurture adult learners’ intrinsic motivation for learning. Some ways may include:

  • Establish adult learner expectations at the beginning of the course.
  • If possible, use a discussion forum for learners to express their goals at the beginning of the course.
  • Design assessments that enable adult learners to implement their past experiences.

Andragogy Principle 5: Orientation to learning

(Problem-solving) (Scenario or Case-based)

Adults prefer problem-focused instruction. Adult learners are motivated to learn something they can apply in their immediate life situations.

Applied to eLearning:

  • Emphasize how the eLearning content will help adult learners solve a current problem.
  • Help adult learners address a problem in the immediate future.
  • Use real-life scenarios to solve problems. Adult learners want information in context with their lives.
  • Another option is case-based problem solving.
  • Design essays where adult learners can discuss their theoretical application of new content to current or future problems.

Andragogy Principle 6: Motivation to learn

(Self-motivated) (Internally Motivated) (Benefits)

As people mature, their motivation to learning becomes more internal. Adult learners are motivated by self-esteem, personal satisfaction, and social status. Adult learners are more autonomous and they need to know why the learning content is important to them.

Applied to eLearning:

  • Provide adult learners a reason for completing each aspect of the eLearning content. Adult learners want a valid reason for learning new content.
  • Be specific on how adult learners will benefit. How exactly will their lives or jobs improve?
  • Inspire curiosity.
  • Include a group collaboration task, if possible. Emphasize how this task improves their team building skills and communication.
  • Build into eLearning ways to show appreciation and respect for adult learners’ contributions.

Andragogy has consistent themes throughout the principles or assumptions. Adult learners are intrinsically motivated, want to learn new things in context with their lives, want to be heard, and want to have some control. Applying these principles to eLearning takes some thought and certainly respect for the adult learner. Seems like a good practice for everyone.

Featured Image by: Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash
Additional Images by (in order of appearance): Alfons Morales, Bram Naus, Caleb Woods,
Mauro Mora-unsplash, unknown via Articulate library

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