Adult Learners 101

Women on laptops

Summer 2018 Institute photo by Bob Bailie

Have you ever known someone who’s a five-star educator when it comes to 9-year olds, but when you ask that same person to facilitate professional development with peers, all those skills disappear? Teaching with adults IS different than teaching younger learners – in fact the whole field of andragogy is dedicated to the art and science of how adults learn.

Andragogy Isn’t a New Term

You probably already know and use the term “pedagogy” to refer to teaching and learning; it has been used this way since ancient Greek times to describe the work of an educator. “Andragogy,” however, isn’t just a modern twist on the more familiar term: German teacher Alexander Kapp first used the word in 1833 to “…refer to the normal process by which adults engage in continuing education…” (Syracuse, 2005).

Adult Learning Theory

two women on computer

Summer 2018 Institute, photo by Bob Bailie

Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, popularized the use of “andragogy” for English language readers in the 1980s when he suggested the following four principles of adult learning:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction;
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities;
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life; and
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. (Knowles, 1984)

Knowles also proposed five assumptions that distinguish adult learners and the way they learn from child learners:

  1. Self-Concept: As a person matures his/her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being;
  2. Adult Learner Experience: As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning;
  3. Readiness to Learn: As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles;
  4. Orientation to Learning: As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centeredness to one of problem centeredness; and
  5. Motivation to Learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal. (Knowles, 1984)

So what does all of this mean for your friend, the Pk-12 educator who is seemingly confounded by training (teaching) a group of peers? Chances are, the reason your friend is having difficulty is a matter of simple, common errors of assumption. The learners your friend regularly works with (i.e. children), for example, depend on the teacher to initiate ALL learning; they have little experience with what’s being taught; they are told what they must learn in order to move on to the next level; they learn through acquisition of logically sequenced, prescribed subject matter, and they are motivated mostly by extrinsic factors like grades and/or consequences of failure. If you think these characteristics stand in contrast to the principles and assumptions Knowles outlined, it should be clear why your friend has trouble working with adult learners.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

adult learners in classroom

Summer 2018 Technology Institute, photo by Bob Bailie

This chart tidily sums up the differences between pedagogy and andragogy. The categories (The Learner, Role of the Learner’s Experience, Readiness to Learn, Orientation to Learning, and Motivation for Learning) align with Knowles’ assumptions about adult learners, and contrasts the characteristics of child and adult learners within each category.

We adults are lifelong learners. The notion that learning stops when we finish our formal education is a myth. We frequently encounter learning opportunities without even realizing it, and one of the best ways for us to learn something is to teach it. How then, after reading this article, might you teach your Pk-12 educator friend to become a better teacher of adults?


Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Reischmann, J. (2004). Andragogy. History, meaning, context, function. Retrieved from

Syracuse University. (2005). Andragogy II. Instructional design theory database project. Retrieved from

One thought on “Adult Learners 101

  1. Pingback: It’s a Matter of Principle 1: “Please Involve Me!” – EdTech207

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