“I Don’t Care About My Grades – I Want A Job that’s More Satisfying!”: Adult Motivation for Learning is More Intrinsic than Extrinsic

Most adults have a host of reasons, some complicated, some personal, for participating in learning. Appealing to those motivativating factors, then, is key to engaging adult learners. Knowles theorizes that adults are more motivated by abstract, internal concepts than by physical, external matter. A little confused? Let’s review.

female instructor and student smiling while one is writing

Maine Math Coaching Project, photo by Emily Kessell, 2018

Knowles’ Fifth Assumption

Knowles’ fifth assumption about adult learners proposes that adults are typically motivated to learn more by intrinsic than extrinsic factors. To clarify, “While adults are responsive to some external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries and the like), the most potent motivators are internal pressures (the desire for increased job satisfaction, self esteem, quality of life, and the like).” (Knowles, 1990, in Lubin, 2013)

For some children, school and learning can feel like a competition – who can get the highest grades, achieve the greatest SAT score, finish with the best GPA, earn the most scholarship money, gain acceptance into the most prestigious college, and other such extrinsically motivating factors. Similarly, other kids might be extrinsically motivated by the prospect of a high-paying job that doesn’t require a college degree. Essentially,

Male instructor and female student working at a computer

Dr. Griswold with a student, photo by Johanna Prince, 2010

learning behavior is driven by the expectation of receiving a tangible payout of some sort – a reward, if you will. According to Knowles, adult learners, however, are much less motivated by such material prizes than they are by more internal, abstract factors such as feeling better about oneself, enhancing or improving one’s quality of life, or personal growth and development.


Appealing to internal motivators through design is a little trickier than our other strategies have been. Transformative learning experiences can help improve learners’ motivation and confidence by allowing them to try something new or think about things from a different perspective. An “a-ha moment,” if you will, can be encouraged by “Incorporat[ing] ways for students to interact with alternative points of view, either via projects and activities, or through collaborations with others who have diverse views and experiences.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)

Educators from the transformative learning theory recommend this process for creating transformative learning experiences:

Woman smiling at the camera while sitting next to a 3D printer

Delaware Libraries Ultimaker 3D Printer, photo by John Abella, 2014

  • Begin by “creating an environment in which students open their minds to new possibilities about
    their lives and futures. To do this, it is first important to create trust. If students feel comfortable they will be more likely to share their thoughts, ask questions, and be open to probing or opposing views.” (Henderson, 2010 in Digital Promise, n.d.)
  • Next, design instruction that “facilitate[s] a ‘trigger’ event. Look for ways to get students to stop, pause and consider something that differs from their current thinking or world view. (Henderson, 2010 in Digital Promise, n.d.) Reading news articles, working with simulations, participating in team projects, conducting research, and discussing videos can introduce opportunities for triggering events (Dirkx & Smith, 2009 in Digital Promise, n.d.), where students are presented with alternative viewpoints.”
  • Finally, allow the learners to examine their new knowledge and/or perspective, and do something with it to cement the transformation. “For example, publishing a paper, producing a video or photo essay, developing a new goal, researching a new career, or joining a professional organization are all ways to take action. Not all students will have a transformative learning experience, but researchers argue that for some adult learners, this type of learning can make the difference between success and failure.” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014 in Digital Promise, n.d.)

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

To summarize: the critical point here is that learning in adulthood is by choice, and most adults will be more motivated to learn something if doing so means some internal, intrinsic need will be met. Designing instruction for intrinsic motivators can be challenging because we all have different ones, but generally speaking, ensuring safe space for adult learners to engage in thinking from a different perspective, creating a “trigger” moment, and allowing students to apply and reflect on their new thinking, is just one strategy for helping to improve adult learners’ confidence and be motivated to engage in learning.


Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/designing-for-adult-learners.pdf
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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s