Malcolm Knowles is perhaps the best known person for popularizing the theory that adults bring unique characteristics to the learning experience. Known as adult learning principles or adult learning theory theory, this work has merits but also has its critics. See the Criticisms of Adult Learning Theory at the end of this article.
If you’re interested in the evolution of andragogy in Europe and the U.S., see Various Ways of Understanding the Concept of Andragogy.
Malcolm Knowles Adult Learning Principles
The theory of adult learning infers that adults are not oversized children. Maturity and experience bring unique characteristics that affect how adults learn. According to this theory, appealing to the unique qualities of adult learners allows learning designers and educators to create more effective and motivating instruction. The following is a list of generalized characteristics common to many but not all adult learners.
- Autonomy. Adults typically prefer a sense of control and self-direction. They like options and choice in their learning environment. Even adults who feel anxiety from self-direction may learn to appreciate this approach if given proper initial support.
- Goal-oriented. Many adults have specific goals they are trying to achieve. They prefer to partake in learning activities that help them reach their goals.
- Practical. Adults in the workplace prefer practical knowledge and experiences that will make work easier or provide important skills. In other words, adults need personal relevance in learning activities.
- Competence and mastery. Adults like to gain competence in workplace skills as it boosts confidence and improves self-esteem.
- Learning by experience. Many adults prefer to learn by doing rather than listening to lectures.
- Wealth of Knowledge. In the journey from childhood to adulthood, people accumulate a unique store of knowledge and experiences. They bring this depth and breadth of knowledge to the learning situation.
- Purposeful. Workplace training is often part of an initiative that involves change. Adults want to know the purpose of training and the motivation underlying an organization’s training initiative.
- Emotional Barriers. Through experience, adults may fear a subject, have anxiety about a subject or feel anger about forced changes in job responsibilities or policies. These emotions can interfere with the learning process.
- Results-oriented. Adults are results-oriented. They have specific expectations for what they will get out of learning activities and will often drop out of voluntary learning if their expectations aren’t met.
- Outside responsibilities. Most adult learners have numerous responsibilities and commitments to family, friends, community and work. Carving out time for learning affects adult learners.
- Potential physical limitations. Depending on their age and physical condition, adult learners may acquire psychomotor skills more slowly than younger students and have more difficulties reading small fonts and seeing small images on the computer screen.
- Big Picture. Adults require the big picture view of what they’re learning. They need to know how the small parts fit into the larger landscape.
- Responsible for Self. Adult learners often take responsibility for their own success or failure at learning.
- Need for Community. Many self-directed adult learners prefer a learning community with whom they can interact and discuss questions and issues.
Criticisms of the Theory of Adult Learning
Critics of the theory deem that andragogy is not a real science because it cannot be measured (Rachal, 2002). Furthermore, the characteristics that Knowles presents are not present in all adults. Some adults are not independent learners and are dependent on a teacher. Also, some children are independent and self-directed learners.
Most likely due to the criticism, Knowles began to explain andragogy as less of a theory of adult learning than a “model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (Knowles, 1989, p. 112).
For more on the criticisms of adult learning theory, see Andragogy’s Transition Into The Future: Meta-Analysis of Andragogy and Its Search for a Measurable Instrument.
As long as learning designers are attuned to the attributes of the target audience, we can use the characteristics of adult learning as guidance. They may be true for many but not all adult learners. They are not a one-size-fits-all approach to adult learning. For more on adult learning, see 30 Ways to Get Your Audience Pumped.
- Knowles, M. (1989). The making of an adult educator: An autobiographical journey (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Rachal, J. R. (2002). Andragogy’s detectives: A critique of the present and a proposal for the future. Adult Education Quarterly, 52(3), 210.
- Taylor B. & M. Kroth. Andragogy’s Transition Into The Future: Meta-Analysis of Andragogy and Its Search for a Measurable Instrument. Journal of Adult Education, Volume 38, Number 1, 2009.