Adult learning: The five key assumptions of andragogy

Darcy NicholsonDarcy Nicolson is a learning and technology expert and a regular contributor to eWorks’ blog. Passionate about lifelong learning, Darcy focuses on improving the use of media and technology to enable better personal development and learning outcomes. In part one of this blog series Darcy talked about Malcolm Knowles and the history of andragogy. Today we consider Knowles’ andragogical model of adult learning.

Knowles and andragogy

Knowles built his andragogical model on a number of assumptions about the way adults learn, and kept refining it. I have seen versions with one more and one less assumption, but his 1984 paper, Androgogy in action (Knowles, S.M., 1984) he settled on these five, which we will look at now[1].

  1. Need to know

Adult learners need to know why they would learn something before they will invest time and attention in a subject. I know myself that I tend to invest more energy in learning something if I have a problem at hand, especially if there is a tangible reward as a result – like my hobby brewing. A problem that I have is temperature control, especially with Melbourne’s fluctuating temperatures. You see, yeast requires a certain temperature to convert sugars into alcohol, and if that temperature fluctuates, the type of alcohol produced does also. (This is why a more expensive wine tends not to leave a hangover, and why people report getting drunk easily on home brewed beer.) So the more consistently you can control your fermenting beer, the better quality it is. This motivation led me to building an Arduino based – temperature controlled fermenter – which wouldn’t have happened without the reward of having a craft beer that I have brewed myself.

  1. Learner’s self-concept

The adult learner’s self-concept is more independent. Knowles said “In a traditional classroom setting an adult learner will fold their arms and say ‘teach me’”. As they hark back to experiences in previous educational environments like school, they feel that power over what they are doing is relinquished to the educator. I had an interesting experience talking to attendees of MYOB Accounting seminars. We would have someone talk about an accounting topic and then show how the AccountRight software could help. I wanted to know which topics people were enjoying and more importantly what would bring them back next year. One attendee told me that she knew everything we were saying already, so I thought I had missed the mark with the topics. I asked for feedback on what changes we could make for next year, but she maintained that she would return next year for similar material. I was confused but with further questioning she told me that it felt good to sit up the back and listen to the question from attendees that didn’t know. She invested in the learning exercise as it gave her a sense of worth and the confidence to increase her rates!

  1. Role of experience

Adult learners bring bountiful prior experience into a learning environment. On a plus side this can make for great discussion, but adult learners can also bring bad habits or preconceptions with them. I studied adult learning as an adult with a cohort of other adults at Monash University. The discussions with others in the cohort about their experiences in and on education were as important as the lecture content itself, not to mention the relationships and resulting personal learning network.

  1. Readiness to learn

penington screen

Readiness to learn is an important factor in adult learning. Similar to the need to know factor (point one above), Knowles discusses an adult learner’s priorities aligning with the educational undertaking. Recently we have worked with Penington Institute to provide the Penington Online MOOC, with has courses about crystal methamphetamine use for youth, healthcare professionals and the general public. Using this technology we are able to provide the information to those who need it, when they need it.  Login and have a look!

  1. Motivation to learn

For me the key underpinning success to any learning exercise for anyone, young or old, is the motivation to learn.  I have written previously on the subject regarding my daughter’s introduction to the world of computer programming, fuelled by a desire to make a modification to the hugely popular game Minecraft. The update to this story is that she now has a YouTube channel and is learning multimedia production, also based on her love for Minecraft.

What does all of this mean for the adult educator? 

A andragogical model is all fine and well, but how to we use it to encourage adult learning? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Need to Know: When you are communicating with your learners, think why as well as what.
  • Learner’s self-concept: Keep your learning environment informal, allowing your learns to exercise choice and control – to shape their own learning environments.
  • Role of experience: Discussion, discussion and more discussion. Make time and space for it.
  • Readiness to learn: Ensure that you cover when and how to apply the information, before starting the learning.
  • Motivation to learn: Find the Minecraft that will drive your learners to seek more. Remember why you’re passionate about your subject and encourage that passion in others.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask the experts. If you need a hand developing your online learning content for adults, eWorks can help.

[1] Knowles, M. S., et al. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education.

9 thoughts on “Adult learning: The five key assumptions of andragogy”

  1. whoah this blog is magnificent i love reading your articles.

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  2. Hi Darcy
    nice summary of Knowles’ model. I actually believe these factors apply to all learning regardless of age. However I am particularly interested in approaches to enhance successful learning for “young adults”. I work at a TAFE and we have large numbers of trade apprentices, care work trainees, “second chance” learners. In a sense these are neither adult nor child learners. Any thoughts on research around this area?


    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your feedback and question – I agree, we are all on a learning path no matter what stage of life we are. Knowles identified that every learner is maturing at their own rate generally but also that per subject they might be at different stages and have different learning needs. In The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (2014) p77 he notes that if he was to begin to learn Theoretical Physics, that some pedagogical (as opposed to andragogical) learning methods would be appropriate. He would need to get a lot of information about theoretical physics in a didactic manner as he would be completely new to the subject.

      Finding a balance between learning styles and methods is a major challenge when educating young adults. You need to factor the desire of a young adult to ‘own’ their own learning, often when they are at the beginning of a learning journey. You are often up against their desire to be a social young adult also!

      My approach with my own young adult has been has been to talk openly about the process of learning, drawing on Donald Schön’s writings on Reflection in Action. These discussions often involve me talking about how long it took for me to gain any proficiency in the subjects I am familiar with and how I went about it. I also try position learning activities as directly as I can to her real world desires and needs. For me the key is discovering the her motivation to learn something, so that you can directly position the learning exercise at hand with a learners goals or aspirations.



      The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development
      Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, Richard A. Swanson
      Routledge, 5 Dec. 2014

      The reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action
      Donald A Schön
      Basic Books 1983

  3. Hi Darcy
    that’s you and me both working with young adults of our own!
    My take out from your comments is that central to all successful learning is that the teacher “knows their learners”.

    1. Thanks Paul, that’s very insightful. I hadn’t considered the role and importance of relationships in education though this story. Darcy.

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