Andragogy (adult learning theory) first appeared as a learning theory in the 1950s, and in 1968 Malcolm Knowles (1988) extended the research by presenting six assumptions of andragogy. The author defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn” (p. 43). The theory is focused on the difference between adult learners’ needs as opposed to pedagogy, which is centered on the needs of younger learners.

Knowles (1988) observed a growing interest in andragogical education from the corporate sector, where managers acted as instructors. He recognized that adult learners possess unique attributes such as a greater sense of maturity, personal and professional experiences, and values that result in different learning needs, goals, and objectives (Rogers, 1996). This led to a change in attitudes and practices towards adults, where educators began seeing their role as helping adults learn. 

Today, adult learners are among the largest and fastest-growing populations of students (NCES, 2018). Adults spend much more time on academics and have a higher focus and motivation than traditional college students. Cross (1980) stated, “Adult learners tend to be achievement-oriented, highly motivated, and relatively independent with special needs for flexible schedules and instruction appropriate for their developmental level” (p. 630). Additionally, Benshoff and Lewis (1992) suggest that “adults generally prefer more active approaches to learning and value opportunities to integrate academic learning with their life and work experience” (p. 2).

Knowles (1988) compared pedagogy to andragogy in his research. Pedagogy means the art and science of teaching children, while andragogy is the art and science of helping adults learn. Additionally, andragogy is an instructional approach geared toward the adult learner and is based on self-directed learning theory.

In his research, Knowles (1988) identified six assumptions about adult learners’ characteristics that are different from the characteristics of child learners. The first assumption addresses self-concept. The adult learner is no longer dependent on others but instead has a self-directing personality. Adults operate as individuals responsible for their actions, both positive and negative. They must empower themselves to achieve their own goals resulting in an increasing need for independence as adults mature.

The second assumption recognizes that the adult’s previous experience (including failures and mistakes) provides the basis for designing learning activities. Their life experiences shape who they are and enhance their learning when considered in the instructional design process.

The third assumption addresses the need for the adult learner to be involved in the planning process. This is essential in designing an educational experience geared toward their learning needs and goals and promotes engagement, self-directivity, and learner self-concept.

The fourth assumption is that an adult learner is willing to learn and eager to learn. Adult learner experiences greater satisfaction and success when they can engage with the content in a self-directed manner.

The fifth assumption is the learner’s orientation to learning. Adults approach learning based on problem-solving and not simply assimilating information by focusing solely on content. Achieving enhanced learning outcomes and satisfaction is accomplished by learning design focused on adults’ problems in everyday life.

Finally, the sixth assumption of adult learning theory is a motivation to learn. Adults have attained a level of maturity that places different values on learning than traditional learners. Typically, this value is related to family and career.

Each principle of andragogy is crucial in designing effective instructional content for adult learners (Knowles et al., 1998). Neglecting these principles can lead to apathy, resentment, a lack of engagement, and even withdrawal. Instructional design should incorporate andragogy principles, empathetic learner analysis strategies, and techniques to ensure learners’ commitment and engagement (Priest, 2000). Failing to do so directly opposes an adult learner’s need for self-directivity, which can have a negative impact on their learning outcomes.


Benshoff, J., & Lewis, H. (1992). Nontraditional College Students. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED347483). Retrieved August 4, 2010, from EBSCOHost ERIC database.

Cross, K. P. (1980). Our changing students and their impact on colleges: Prospects for a true learning society.  Phi Delta Kappan, 630-632.

Knowles, M. S. (1988). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge Adult Education, 43-69.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (Eds.). (1998). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (5th ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Projections of educational statistics to 2026. Table 15. Actual and middle alternative projects numbers for total enrollment in all degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by sex, age, and attendance status., 60. Retrieved from

Priest, L. (2000). The story of one learner: a student’s perspective on online teaching. In K. W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds), The online teaching guide: a handbook of attitudes, strategies, and techniques for the virtual classroom (pp. 37–44). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Rogers, A.  (1996). Teaching adults.  Buckingham: Open University Press.


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