On a Need to Know Basis: Adults’ Readiness to Learn Depends on their Need to Know Something

Adult learners may not be engaged because they don’t feel they need to know what they’re being taught; perhaps their jobs don’t demand it, they already know it, or they haven’t yet come to terms with a need to change. Knowles’ third assumption states, “As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.” (Knowles, 1984) Let’s review.

Knowles’ Third Assumption

smiling man with a robot prototype

Robot World Prototypes, photo by Fabrice Florian, 2017

Adults are more likely to engage in learning something when they feel they need to know it – such as learning a new work skill when a promotion is imminent, or studying a new discipline when they’ve been laid off or are ready for a change. From an andragogical perspective, learning is triggered by a need to change something – essentially an assessment of “what I know versus what I need to know” – in order to perform more effectively. “Adults are driven to learn new skills or understand new concepts based on the ever-changing demands of work and life, so timing the learning to correspond with the tasks at hand is at the heart of this principle of adult learning. Learning to transform oneself and society resonates within this principle of adult learning.” (Lubin, 2013).

While schooling is mandated for children in the U.S., it’s important to remember that adults choose to be educated, and usually with a specific purpose in mind: “Learning in adulthood is usually voluntary. Thus, it’s a personal choice to attend school, in order to improve job skills and achieve professional growth. This motivation is the driving force behind learning and this is why it’s crucial to tap into a learner’s intrinsic impetus with the right thought-provoking material that will question conventional wisdom and stimulate his mind.” (Pappas, 2013)

male and female students smiling and chatting

Students, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016


In addition to needing to know WHAT they’re learning WHEN they need to know it, adults also want to know how HOW learning will be conducted and WHY it is important. The significance of this assumption, then, is threefold:

  • Know and understand the learner’s expectations and needs through needs assessment performed prior to the learning activity. This allows for appropriate collaborative planning, to avoid teaching content that is either too basic (the learners will view the experience as a waste of time) or too difficult (they may lack foundational knowledge necessary to understand the content), or is perceived by learners as irrelevant to their needs;
  • Introduce goals and objectives – that is, what learners will be able to know or do with the knowledge acquired – early in the learning experience; and
  • Present a syllabus, an agenda, or a training outline at the beginning of the learning experience to give the learners a preview of what they will learn. (Palis & Quiros, 2014) 

    female instructor talking with three women around a table

    Dr. H. and three students, photo by Bob Bailie, 2014

Remember, adults are in your class (training session/workshop/educational experience) most importantly because they choose to be. “When working with adult learners, you should cut any unnecessary theoretical background from your training content. Keep only the essential parts, and enrich your training with simulations and real-life case studies that facilitate knowledge transfer. Incorporate on-the-job training sessions that teach your learners specific skills that they’ll be able to apply to their own everyday workflows.” (Andriotis, 2018)

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

Simply put, adults are much more likely to engage in learning if they can clearly see how it will benefit them by closing the gap between their current knowledge and necessary knowledge. You can promote success with your audience by separating critical from non-essential information, framing the learning as beneficial for improving skills, introducing the goals and/or objectives of the learning experience right up front, and providing a preview of what the audience will learn. When adults see value in what they are learning when they need it, how it will happen, and why it is important, they are much more likely to engage themselves with it.


Andriotis, N. (11 June 2018). How to adapt your training to the characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/ways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs

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

Lubin, M. (2013). Coaching the adult learner: A framework for engaging the principles and processes of andragogy for best practices in coaching (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/22017/Lubin_MM_D_2013.pdf

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. (8 May 2013). 8 important characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/8-important-characteristics-of-adult-learners

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