“I Know Something About That!” – Adults Bring Personal Experience to the Learning Environment

Malcolm Knowles’ second assumption about adult learners reiterates the second principle of andragogy regarding the experience adults bring to the learning environment. Let’s review.

Knowles’ Second Assumption

As we learned from the second principle of Knowles’ theory (see blog #3), adult learners bring significantly more experience and/or prior knowledge as a resource for their learning: “As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.” (Knowles, 1984).

men and women standing around a computerized easel in the 1980s

Classroom, 1980s. Photo by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, 2016

Essentially, what this means is that children and adults view experience differently: “To children, experience is something that happens to them; to adults, experience is who they are. The implication of this fact for adult education is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adult will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but rejecting themselves as persons.“ (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011).

Jenny Litster of the UCL Institute of Education (2016) affirms the position noted in blog #3: “Learning is built on previous knowledge and experience. Educators must recognise therefore that life experience and knowledge is a valuable experience; this is Knowles’ second principle of andragogy that experience, including making mistakes, provides the basis for learning activities…experience can, however, be negative as well as positive, particularly for adults who are re-engaging with learning [after] negative experiences of compulsory schooling.” (Litster, 2016)


Adults learn by experience, but also love to share their experience with particular subject matter. As a course designer, you can leverage this desire for sharing by having adult learners teach one another:

  • Discussion forums and/or real-time chat sessions allow your learners to exchange stories with one another

    man sitting in front of laptop listening to someone

    Summer Technology Institute 2018, photo by Bob Bailie

  • Activities such as storytelling, group discussions, debates, etc. are excellent opportunities for adults to share while also reflecting on and reviewing their own experience in terms of what is being taught. (Palis & Quiros, 2014)
  • Fishbowls allow groups to share ideas and observations
  • The World Cafe is a conversational process about questions and issues that matter. Conversations build and link with each other as participants move from group to group (think speed dating for groups) creating a collaborative, cross-pollinated approach to problem solving. In a World Cafe model, learners are not only sharing with one another, but are also oriented to problem solving, as we discussed in blog #4.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

man in a baseball cap listening in class

Student, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

Adults bring a vast array of experiences and/or prior knowledge to the table in any learning situation, and that experience is as varied as the individuals themselves. Acknowledging and valuing this experience, and finding a way to integrate it into instruction opens a gateway to learning beyond the traditional instructor role. Simply saying “I realize you probably already know something about this, but let’s see if you can learn something new about it” might be the best way for you to be redeemed in your colleagues’ eyes, and encourage their engagement and collaboration.


Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., and Swanson, R. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Litster, J. (2016). Breaking barriers: Research report. The principles of adult learning. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/epale/sites/epale/files/the_principles_of_adult_learning_.pdf?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Fways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs&utm_medium=link

Palis, A. and Quiros, P. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 21(2): 114–122. doi:10.4103/0974-9233.129748.

Pappas, C. (9 May 2013). The adult learning theory – andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles

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