Adult Learning Theory: Principles and Assumptions

Understanding and Applying the Adult Learning Theory: Principles and Assumptions

This is part one of a two-part series highlighting the Adult Learning Theory and how to apply it in training courses.

For some of us, the words “learning theory” might trigger a school-age fear of pop quizzes and terrible cafeteria lunches, but before you begin to worry, today’s blog is going to examine something less elementary: the Adult Learning Theory. Rather than focusing on the pop-quizzes and mystery meat, let’s delve deeper into what exactly the Adult Learning Theory is and what it is composed of.

Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, is best known for his development of the word “Andragogy” in conjunction with his Adult Learning Theory. When translated from Greek, “Andragogy” means “man-leading” and is the converse of “Pedagogy,” which means “child-leading.” Andragogy suggests that because adults are self-driven (man-leading) and are expected to take responsibility for decisions, learning programs or courses must support this notion. Building from this concept, Knowles structured the Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy) in 1968, which still stands as a pillar for creating adult learning materials.

Knowles’ theory asserts that Andragogy is composed of five main assumptions about how adult learners process information differently than children and four principles for applying these assumptions. To better understand this theory, let’s define and discuss these assumptions and principles in a training context.

Andragogy v Pedagogy: Five Assumptions


As we grow and mature, education shifts from a dependent relationship between student and teacher into an independent self-seeking experience. We shift from needing Mrs. Smith to explain multiplication to us to researching solutions for ourselves. In a training context, this means that adult learners can thrive in independent learning/training scenarios. With Instructor-Led Training (ILT), the training instructor can serve as a facilitator to provide learners with an environment that allows them to think for themselves, to make decisions, make mistakes, and learn from those decisions and actions. 

Adult Learner Experience

Continuing knowledge and education is based on the idea that we build our learning on prior experience. This assumption capitalizes on the fact that adult learners can retain experiences and reference them for learning purposes. In other words, we become more intuitive with age and experience; we learn from mistakes. For example, in a leadership-training program, leaders could reflect on the past quarter or year’s performance to develop stronger leadership skills.

Readiness to Learn

Adults are inclined to learn when there is an incentive, e.g., growth or development of a current skill or facet of their career/social life. Adults are attracted to training situations where learning objectives and aims are clear because they offer the prospect of “what’s in it for me.” For instance, training that conveys how much more productive a warehouse associate can be by learning to operate newly-installed technology/machinery and how he or she can be rewarded for increased productivity with organizational advancement gives the learner strong incentive to learn and develop that skill.

Orientation to Learning

As a person’s problem-solving skills develop and sharpen, learning becomes less subject-centric and more solutions-based. Because of this, learning then has a need for application immediacy. Rather than learning general skills, adults desire to learn skills that will immediately apply to and improve the work they are doing. 

Motivation to Learn

Do you remember dragging your heels when it was time to board the bus for school? Of course, as kids, the ideal was to play all day and avoid schoolwork. This is where adults differ though. As we mature, the desire to learn stems from internal motivation rather than external pressure (parents and teachers). We want to learn for our own reasons: to boost self-esteem, get a raise, develop new skills, etc. Assuming this, organizations could implement robust soft skills training, as development in soft skills is seen as a vital step toward growth by workers and employers alike.

Principles of Andragogy

Now that we have covered the five main assumptions of Andragogy, let’s take a look at the four principles that govern the Adult Learning Theory. These principles can be used in tandem with the assumptions above to create strong training programs. 

  1. Adults must be actively involved in the development, delivery, and evaluation of their training materials. 
  2. Experience must serve as the foundation for learning. Adults gain more from learning from prior experiences, mistakes included.
  3. Adults are concerned with learning subjects or skills that have an immediate impact on their lives/careers/sociability. 
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
What’s Next

Above, we successfully dodged reliving school-age nightmares and discussed the differences between Andragogy and Pedagogy. We also covered what Andragogy, or the Adult Learning Theory is composed of and how it relates to learning in training courses. In next week’s blog, we will take a further look at how to effectively apply this theory within training courses.