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Malcolm Knowles's Adult Learning Theory

Core Adult Learning Principles

  1. Learner's Need to Know
    • Why
    • What
    • How

  2. Self-Concept of the Learner
    • Autonomous
    • Self-Directing

  3. Prior Experience of the Learner
    • Resources
    • Mental Models

  4. Readiness to Learn
    • Life-Related
    • Developmental Task

  5. Orientation to Learning
    • Problem-Centered
    • Contextual

  6. Motivation to Learn
    • Intrinsic Value
    • Personal Payoff

Applying Andragogical Principles

The following table provides a comparison between Pedagogy, which applies to teaching children, and Andragogy, which applies to teaching adults.




Teaching Discipline:



Children, especially young children, are highly dependent upon parents and other adults to direct their learning and other behavior. While their fundamental dignity as human beings must certainly be respected, they are not yet fully responsible agents.

Adults are not keen on having to learn new material without having any idea what the new learning entails, why they should be expected to learn it, or how they will be expected to perform. Their human dignity as fully responsible agents must be respected.


Children do not begin learning autonomously, but gradually grow into increasingly autonomous individuals. Their brains, especially in the frontal and pre-frontal regions where reasoning and judgment occur, are still heavily under development well into their twenties. They require guidance and supervision, and their self-concept reflects that need.

Adults are autonomous human beings; they are accustomed to being on their own. They make decisions for themselves, they are responsible for their decisions, and they don’t need anyone’s permission in order to act. While it may be helpful to provide them with instructional information, they are capable of making rational decisions for themselves.

Prior Experience:

Children have practically no real-world experience on which to draw, and most fundamental cognitive schemata are still in the formative stage. In order to grasp even fundamental concepts, they generally require more explanation and examples than adults. Their respective skills are correspondingly at a more rudimentary stage of development.

Adults have a wealth of prior experience as fully responsible agents on which to draw – relevant pre-existing schemata that can be further elaborated and developed through instruction and practice. They also have myriad pre-well-established skills to incorporate into an increasingly complex and sophisticated repertoire.

Readiness to Learn:

Since children have relatively little real-world experience, the pre-existing schemata they possess are generally not very elaborate or realistic. It is therefore incumbent upon the instructional designer or writer to present information at a fairly basic level and clarify even the most fundamental concepts, which are difficult for children even to imagine.

Adults are more predisposed to learn when they can relate the new material to real-world situations in which they already find themselves. They are also accustomed to assuming responsibility and are inclined to assume responsibilities that come with new learning, especially when the new learning makes sense to them. Pre-existing concepts can often be used effectively as analogies to present new information.

Orientation to Learning:

Children typically embark on their learning journeys serendipitously, pursuing countless random curiosities and absorbing new information like little sponges. Children need adults to guide their curiosity and provide cognitive structure to the information they are absorbing. Gradually they get their bearings and become increasingly autonomous and self-directed in their learning.

Adults tend to be very practical people. They are accustomed to solving problems within their own respective spheres and having to figure out how to get things done. Though written and illustrated instructional materials may be necessary for learning certain subject matter, adults prefer integrating real-world application as a means of learning. Adults want to see how new learning can provide a benefit to themselves and to their circumstances.

Motivation to Learn:

Children do not generally possess much in the way of intrinsic motivation to acquire the kind of knowledge, skills, or attitudes that adults expect them to learn. Consequently, instructional designers and writers must rely heavily on extrinsic behavioral motivating factors, rewards, and, at times, punishments. The challenge for the instructional designer, writer, or instructor is to ease the juvenile learner from an externally regulated behavioral style through stages toward an internally regulated behavioral style. The ultimate motivational goal is to lead the young learner to intrinsic behavioral regulation, to learning out of genuine interest in the subject matter.

Adults typically already possess some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors with respect to the subject matter to be learned. According to Ryan and Deci's self-determination theory, humans have fundamental psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The wise technical writer or instructional designer will adopt motivational strategies that are mindful of these needs and will cater to them. Unfortunately, however, adults sometimes need to be persuaded to "unlearn" things that they have previously come to believe and accept in order for them to acquire new knowledge or understanding. Yet this persuasion must be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the adult learners' legitimate autonomy.

© 2024 Joseph A. Spitzig, PhD

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