The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913 – 1997) was an American educator well known for the use of the term Andragogy as synonymous to adult education. According to Malcolm Knowles, andragogy is the art and science of adult learning, thus andragogy refers to any form of adult learning. (Kearsley, 2010).

Knowles’ 5 Assumptions of Adult Learners
In 1980, Knowles made 4 assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners (andragogy) that are different from the assumptions about child learners (pedagogy). In 1984, Knowles added the 5th assumption.


In 1980, Knowles made 4 assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners (andragogy) that are different from the assumptions about the characteristics of child learners (pedagogy). In 1984, Knowles added the 5th assumption.


How To Apply Adult Learning Theory to eLearning

Despite the fact that Knowles’ adult learning theory assumptions and principles were introduced in the 1980’s, each can be utilized today to help eLearning professionals create more meaningful learning experiences for adult learners. Here’s how to effectively apply Knowles’ 5 Adult Learning Theory Assumptions to eLearning.

1. Assumption #1 (Self-Concept)

Create learning experiences that offer minimum instruction and maximum autonomy. Adult learners acquire new information and build upon existing knowledge much more effectively if they are encouraged to explore a topic on their own – mature learners will typically get more out of the experience if they are able to work autonomously. This might come in the form of self-study or group collaboration projects that involve minimal instructor intervention. Simulations, scenarios, or games can also be offered without prefacing them with any information. As such, the adult learners will have to explore the activity on their own, and decide which benefits and information they can take away from the eLearning experience.

2. Assumption #2 (Adult Learner Experience)

Include a wide range of instructional design models and theories to appeal to varied experience levels and backgrounds. Adult learners are going to be more diverse, especially in terms of backgrounds, experience levels, and skill sets. To appeal to different adult learners, it’s often best to include a variety of different instructional design models and theories into your eLearning course or module. Survey your audience beforehand to determine any technical knowledge limitations they may have, as well as to assess their education levels. By doing this, you will also be able to create eLearning experiences that are informative and engaging, rather than too challenging or boring.

3. Assumption #3 (Readiness to Learn)

Utilise social media and online collaboration tools to tie learning to social development. As we get older, we are often more ready to challenge ourselves with new learning opportunities if we know it will help us to fine tune skills that pertain to our social roles. From an eLearning professional point of view, social media and online collaboration tools can help you to incorporate this assumption into your deliverables. Create activities that encourage adult learners to use sites like LinkedIn and Google Plus as invaluable tools. This can help them to not only build their social network, but collaborate with those who share the same interests.

4. Assumption #4 (Orientation to Learning)

Emphasize how the subject matter is going to solve problems that an adult learner regularly encounters. Adult learners, essentially, need to know the why and when before they actively engage in the eLearning process. For example, they will not only want to know why they need to acquire specific information, but whether or not that information can be applied in the immediate future. Mature learners prefer to engage in eLearning experiences that help them to solve problems they encounter on a regular basis (in the here-and-now, rather than the future). So, you’ll want to emphasize how the subject matter is going to help them solve problems immediately by offering real world examples and scenarios.

5. Assumption #5 (Motivation to Learn)

There must be a valid reason behind every eLearning course, module or educational activity. Motivation is key with adult learners. As such, you will need to motivate them to learn by offering them a reason for every eLearning activity, assessment, or eLearning module they’ll need to complete. eLearning professionals must explain why a particular eLearning course is being taught and why an adult learner must participate in an eLearning activity, in order for the overall eLearning experience to be meaningful and engaging. Adult learners need to feel as though they are more involved in the process of learning. Otherwise, they will question the validity of the eLearning course, given that they don’t see any real need for acquiring the new knowledge or skills.

Applying Knowles’ 4 Adult Learning Theory Principles to eLearning

1. Principle of Andragogy #1

Adults must have a hand in the design and development of their learning experience. While, both adult and younger online learners must feel as though they are playing an active role in their own eLearning experience, for adult learners this is particularly important. They must truly be an integral part of the development and implementation of the curriculum, as well as of the evaluation process. Getting feedback from adult learners allows you to achieve this, as it offers you the opportunity to design learning materials, exams, and activities based upon the needs and wants of the adult learners.

2. Principle of Andragogy #2

Experience should be at the root of all eLearning tasks and activities. What matters most in regards to adult education isn’t the end result, but the eLearning experience that is gathered through instruction and activities. Rather than offering
memorisation tasks, create projects and exercises that encourage adult learners to go out and explore the subject matter, thereby gaining experience. By doing this, adult learners can learn from their errors and master their skills sets through first-hand experience. Adult learners can take on their own approach when solving problems, which will give them the chance to use their knowledge in a practical way. There will be trial-and-error involved, which is what makes the overall eLearning experience more meaningful and effective.

3. Principle of Andragogy #3

Real life applications and benefits must be tied to the eLearning course. Adult learners need to be able to tie the subject matter to real world benefits and applications. If they cannot see how a module or activity will give them an advantage in real life, or how a particular eLearning course is going to apply to real world situations, then they won’t be excited about the eLearning process. eLearning professionals can increase engagement by integrating scenarios into adult eLearning courses. This way, adult learners have the opportunity to directly see how what they are learning can be used in the real world.

4. Principle of Andragogy #4

Give adult learners the opportunity to absorb information, rather than memorising it. The content being offered in adult eLearning courses should be problem-centred, as adult learners’ will want to immediately see how the instructions will help them to solve an issue they might encounter outside of the eLearning environment. This often means that the subject matter should offer them the chance to fine tune skill sets and acquire (and retain) practical knowledge by doing, rather than just memorising. Create activities that allow adult learners to delve into specific tasks, such as simulations, that enable them to store the information in their long term memory through repetition and experience.

These adult learning principles and assumptions can be applied to any eLearning deliverable in order to offer your adult learners a wide range of benefits, including improved comprehension of key concepts and a boost in knowledge retention.

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