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Education is a process that continues long after one has concluded their formal education. At this point, the learner is no longer a child, but an adult who’s ready to enter the workforce and face the world. Thus, the teaching methods that worked well to educate the person in elementary school, high school, and even college, may not work anymore.

How, then, can a teacher successfully teach an adult? 

That’s where andragogy comes in. 

Andragogy, which is the art of teaching adults, is the opposite of pedagogy — the traditional approach to teaching children. The core principle of andragogy is that adults are more motivated and self-aware than children, so they need to learn in ways that center their lives, instead of their academic potential. As a result, andragogical teaching methods focus on hands-on learning experiences, which encourage learners to be fully present and participate. 

Teachers have successfully used andragogy in education for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that we began to understand why this theory is so effective. 

Read on to find out: 

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What is Andragogy?

Andragogy, also known as Adult Learning Theory, is a theory that states that adults must be actively involved in the formation, delivery, and assessment of their own learning programs. In other words, training materials for adults must support the notion that adults are self-directed and can make good decisions on their own. 

Andragogical approaches to learning center the learning needs of adults, which leads to higher knowledge retention rates. With andragogical teaching methods, adults are made to engage with their surroundings, instead of passively sitting behind a desk and listening to a teacher explain things. 

When teachers give adult learners free rein to explore their surroundings while learning, the learners are more likely to remember and apply what they’ve learned to their specific role. That’s precisely why this teaching concept has been successful in helping adults learn in different fields, including business, nursing, military training, transportation, and engineering.

The History and Development of Andragogy

The term “andragogy” was first used by Alexander Kapp, a German teacher, in 1833 to describe elements of Plato’s theory of education. The term disappeared from mainstream educational terminology and didn’t reappear until 1921 when American educators, Eduard Lindeman and Eugen Rosenstock-Hussey used it in a report. Lindeman and Rosenstock-Hussey argued that “adult education requires special teachers, methods, and philosophy” and they categorized these special requirements under the umbrella term — andragogy.

It was, however, Malcolm S. Knowles, an American educator that popularized the idea and built the foundation for modern andragogy. In the 1950s, Knowles was the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America. He later served as a Professor of Education at Boston University (BU) from 1960 to 1974. It was during his time at BU that Knowles began to notice the insufficiencies of formal learning settings and seek a more comprehensive approach to adult learning. 

He positioned andragogy as the answer to the limitations of pedagogy. Knowles felt that the ideals of pedagogy, the art of teaching children, do not carry over effectively to adult education. Thus, traditional pedagogical teaching methods like content-driven lectures, drills, quizzes, examinations, and rote memorization won’t work for adults. 

So instead of the “passive transmittal or knowledge and skills” that was the main characteristic of pedagogy, Knowles proposed that adult learning should focus on getting learners to actively participate in their own learning process and apply what they learn to real-life situations. And he thought informal settings like community centers and workplaces are the best for the development of new interests and the application of practical skills. 

Knowles developed his andragogical system based on five foundational assumptions or principles (more on this in the next section): 

  • Adults flourish in independent learning environments.
  • Adults learn best through prior experience, which includes making mistakes.
  • For adults to develop a readiness to learn, they need to know the impact the subject/topic they’re learning will have on their personal lives, careers, or sociability.
  • Adults will learn better when the topic is problem-oriented, instead of content-oriented.
  • Adults are motivated by internal elements — not external pressures.

Malcolm Knowles wrote popular works on informal adult education and self-direction with his wife, Hulda. His work was the defining factor that shifted the focus of adult educators from merely teaching people to helping them learn better. 

Principles of Andragogy

In his argument for andragogy, Malcolm Knowles proposed six principles to guide educators who wanted to adopt andragogical teaching methods. These principles are Self-concept,  Adult learner experience, Readiness to learn, Orientation to learning, Motivation to learn, and Active learning. 

Principle 1: Self-Concept

In his 1975 book, Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, Malcolm Knowles described maturation as a phenomenon “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

Put simply, as people get older, they want to be able to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and when they want to learn it. This is what self-concept is — an adult becoming more independent and self-directed as they mature. 

It’s easy for teachers to make assumptions about what learners need, but this approach is pedagogical — not andragogical. In andragogy, teachers give learners the freedom to make their own learning choices, whether that’s by letting them choose how they’ll receive new information, allowing them to design their own tests, and/or providing a collaborative learning environment for them to thrive in.

For example, a pedagogical middle school agriculture teacher may stand in front of the class and explain, with a diagram, how seeds in the soil germinate, grow, and become trees. The andragogical approach to this would be encouraging learners to get seeds of any fruit or crop of their choice, plant it in whatever container they like, tend to it daily, and record their observations over the next couple of weeks/months.

Learners are more likely to be invested in their learning process when they’re given the freedom to choose the elements of the lesson. 

Principle 2: Adult Learner Experience

Adult learners have an ever-increasing reservoir of life experiences that play a huge role in their learning. These unique experiences encompass formal education, job experience, and life events. 

Unlike children who have little experience and must rely on other people’s experiences to learn, adult learners are able to use their unique experiences to contribute to group discussions and understand a topic better. So even if the concepts a teacher introduces are new, adult learners can reference their lived experiences and connect the dots between past knowledge and new information.  

Therefore, as a teacher, it’s your responsibility to understand the experiences your adult learners bring to class. This way, you can incorporate them into debriefs, explanations, and class discussions to help learners feel acknowledged. Doing this can also help learners absorb new information selectively, as they’ll be able to identify knowledge gaps that their past experience doesn’t fill and solutions to mistakes they’ve made in the past. 

Say you’re hosting a leadership training program for adults who are in the workforce. Instead of simply explaining how they can improve their leadership skills, ask learners who work (or have worked) in a managerial position to reflect on and discuss their performance in their workplace. This session can help them figure out things they did right at work (and how to improve on them), and things they did wrong (and how to fix them).

Principle 3: Readiness to Learn

“What’s in this for me?” 

That’s the question many adult learners ask when trying to decide what they should be receptive to and what they should ignore. Unlike children who, like sponges, absorb as much information as they can as they grow, adults are much more selective about what they direct their energies toward. 

Adults will generally be more interested in learning from you if you can prove that the subject/skill you’re teaching will have a positive impact on their personal, work, or social lives. So to prepare them for the learning process, you’ll need to explain to them why they need to learn what you want to teach them. 

As an adult takes up various social roles — employee, spouse, parent, caregiver — they must adjust their learning towards the skills necessary to excel in that role. Therefore, an adult who just entered the workforce will be inclined to learn the skills necessary to succeed in their job. But an adult who recently became a parent will be more interested in learning how to take care of infants. 

To increase your learners’ readiness to learn, determine that what you’re teaching has immediate relevance to their personal and/or professional lives. Then develop activities in your lessons that replicate real-world scenarios and include interactive elements. This ensures that learners are able to apply their new knowledge to everyday situations.

Principle 4: Orientation to Learning

As children grow into adults, they move away from subject-based learning to problem-based learning, which focuses on new knowledge that can be applied in practical situations.  Their orientation shifts from a postponed application of knowledge and prioritizes the immediacy of application. 

For example, when middle school students take algebra in the 8th grade, they don’t expect to immediately apply their knowledge to real-life problems. In fact, they might end up not applying it at all if they eventually work in a field where there’s no need for it. 

On the flip side, adults will rather devote their time to learning a concept or skill if they’re sure they’ll need the knowledge right away. Because of this, adults don’t focus much on the concept itself, but on how they’ll apply it in their personal and/or professional lives. 

Principle 5: Motivation to Learn

Think back to the time when you were a kid and you dragged your feet when the bus came to pick you up from school. But your parents convinced you to go anyway. And when you got to class, you had to pay attention to your studies because your parents and/or teachers expected good grades from you. You also took your school work seriously because you understood that, without it, you may not get a good job.

This scenario clearly demonstrates how a child’s motivation for learning is external — whether from parents, teachers, or the general society. They’re required to go to school, and if they don’t, they’ll likely face external consequences. 

However, as children become adults, their motivation for learning becomes internal. They worry less about who expects them to learn and more about their own personal reasons for learning something. So even if the grading system exists in andragogy, it doesn’t possess the same motivating factor for adults as it does for children. These internal motivators, which are unique to each learner, include self-actualization, better quality of life, and self-esteem, amongst others. 

When an adult is faced with a problem, they find a solution to it. When they want to move up the career ladder, they improve on their existing skills (or learn new ones). Instead of learning to satisfy others, adults pursue education for themselves. That’s why educators should try to understand the motivations of their adult learners so that they can implement skills training that helps learners solve their problems effectively and efficiently.

Principle 6: Active Learning

For centuries, educators have successfully used traditional lectures to deliver knowledge to students. And for good reason, too — they’re fairly inexpensive, can be used to teach many students at the same time, and can be adapted to any topic and audience. 

Malcolm Knowles, however, proposed that lectures aren’t the best way to teach adults because of their passive nature, their disconnection from the learners’ real-life practice, and the effort learners have to put in to maintain attention. Sometimes, lectures also lack clear learning objectives, which hinders students’ ability to connect new and previous knowledge. Instead, Knowles posited that educators include some strategies in their lectures to make them more effective — from encouraging students’ active participation to presenting variations of their lectures. 

This teaching model implies that: 

  • Learners do much more than passively sit and listen to an instructor for an hour 
  • There is less emphasis on passing information and more on developing a learner’s skills 
  • Learners engage in dynamic and interactive sessions, which involve reading, writing, class discussions, and experiments
  • Learners are encouraged to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate concepts 
  • Learners are encouraged to explore their own attitudes and values

Strategies that promote active learning include reflective activities, group discussions, case studies, debates, and role-playing. These techniques are especially effective in fields like medicine, engineering, and psychology. 

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Criticisms and Limitations of Andragogy

While andragogical teaching methods helped many adults learn better, some educators like Jennifer A. Sandlin and Susan B. Bastable criticized Malcolm Knowles’ assumptions of andragogy. Below are some of their criticisms: 

  1. Not all adults are self-directed learners 

The entire premise of andragogy is that all adult learners are self-directed learners. This isn’t always true. Many adults need guidance and structure when learning a new concept or skill. A great example of this is when a sales representative is learning how to use brand-new software. Without guidance, they may not be able to master the tool.  

  1. Not all adults learn from their life experiences 

While it’s true that life experiences shape the way an adult learns, andragogy fails to recognize that not all life experiences can help an adult better understand a topic. For example, the language experience of a Chinese native who’s spoken Mandarin their entire life likely won’t be useful when they’re learning how to speak English.

In addition, not everyone is capable of analyzing their experiences in such a way that they’ll learn something from them. And for people who have learning disabilities, their cognitive, physical, and psychosocial characteristics transform over time, which can affect their ability to apply life experiences to new knowledge. 

  1. Some adults learn new skills for fun

Malcolm Knowles proposed that adults learn new concepts and skills to solve an immediate problem they’re facing. This isn’t always true. Adults learn for various reasons. People who decide to learn a new sport or hobby may not be doing it to solve a problem; they may be doing it because they think it’s fun.

  1. Some adults are driven to learn by external factors 

Knowles proposed that andragogy works best for adult learners because it capitalizes on the learner’s internal motivators. However, educators shouldn’t assume that internal desires wholly drive an adult’s desire to learn. Personal identifiers like class, race, gender, and sexual orientation can affect what an adult chooses to learn and how they learn it. 

  1. Andragogy ignores the role of learning in communities 

Andragogy posits that adult learners develop skills based on the social role they occupy. In some cases, this isn’t true. Some people learn new skills to address a need in their community. 

In her 2005 essay, An Analysis of Andragogy from Three Critical Perspectives, Jessica Sandline argues that andragogy focuses too much on the individual learner while ignoring the social context of the learner or the need for people to address unfairness and injustice in their communities. According to Sandlin, an adult might observe a problem within their community and learn the skill(s) they need to come up with a solution that’ll benefit everyone.

How to Apply Andragogy in Teaching

If you’re trying to incorporate andragogy into your teaching process, here are a few tips you can try:

  1. Learn about your students’ backgrounds

As a teacher, you need to learn about your students’ backgrounds before planning your lessons or online course. You can do this by sending your ideal students an informal survey with questions about their backgrounds. 

Knowing what is relevant to your adult students can help you tailor your curriculum to better fit them. You’ll be able to use familiar terms, and examples or problems that they can relate to as you explain concepts. This will reduce any distraction, disinterest or frustration adults might experience if they don’t think your course is valuable. 

For example, if you’re teaching English as a second language to Russian natives and you find out that many of them work in marketing, you can teach them marketing-related terms and phrases they need to know to succeed at work.

  1. Encourage students to participate in their learning process

Since adults like to be involved in their learning process, you need to work closely with them to determine the direction they’d like to take with their course/lesson. Your students may want you to devote more time to explaining a specific topic or covering additional material. 

For example, if you teach project management, ask your students what aspect(s) of the topic they’d like you to focus on. The suggestions they give will shape your lesson planning and the structure of your completed course. You can also discuss various assessment techniques with them as well. 

During the learning process, encourage discussions and collaborations between learners (and instructors). And once they finish the course, ask your students for feedback on the lesson and the way it was presented. 

The more you involve your learners in their learning process, the more invested they’ll be in your class.

  1. Embrace self-directed learning

Adult learners learn better when they’re able to direct their own learning processes. That’s why you should encourage learners to identify their own needs, set their own goals, build their courses/lessons, and evaluate their own performance. 

Fortunately, with technologies like a learning management system (LMS), you can create a self-directed learning environment for your adult learners. You can give them a myriad of courses they can choose to enroll in, help them establish their own objectives, and allow them to learn whenever and wherever they want. 

You can also give your students more learning freedom by offering your lesson content in multiple formats: audio, video, and text options. This increases accessibility and caters to the different learning styles your students might have. 

Also offer students different ways of interacting with the lesson, e.g. a self-paced course or a cohort-based course. And don’t forget to provide additional resources (articles, books, videos, etc.) on each topic so that students can learn more about them at their own pace.

  1. Use real-life examples in your lessons

According to Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy, adults want to know how their training will benefit their personal and professional lives. So when preparing your course content, include as many relatable real-life examples as possible.

For example, to effectively teach students how to use new software, walk them through a real situation in which they’ll need to use the tool, and explain how and why they’d use it. Explaining a topic with a problem that your students may face in the real world is much more effective than providing formulas or abstract information and asking them to memorize it.

  1. Let your learners figure things out themselves 

Adults are problem-oriented, so when creating your course content, don’t give them all the answers at once. Instead, give your learners some problems to solve and work backward to the explanation of the solutions. This approach puts students in charge of their learning and makes them think. 

If possible, encourage students to work with other coursemates to brainstorm possible solutions to the problems. Only after they’ve come up with some answers will you step in, ask them questions, and explain the solutions better.

You can take this approach up a notch by giving your students periodic assignments, projects, tests, or even examinations to gauge how well they’re understanding the topic. 

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Techniques for Andragogical Instruction

As an educator who teaches adults, here are some techniques you can use to enforce andragogical instructions: 

  1. Roleplay

Roleplay is a teaching technique that allows students to explore realistic situations by interacting with their classmates. So instead of explaining to students what they should do in a particular situation, ask them to act it out. 

For example, say you’re teaching newbie customer representatives how to handle angry customers. Instead of reeling out de-escalation techniques and calling it a day, you could ask two students to assume the roles of a customer representative and an angry customer and act out different scenarios. 

That way, all the students can see what de-escalation techniques look like in action and have discussions about the interaction. 

  1. Storytelling

Storytelling is an old teaching technique that works well in both andragogy and pedagogy. For adult learners, storytelling is a great way to channel their emotions and help them retain their lessons better.

As you use real-world examples to buttress your points, tell stories from your own experience as a teacher about how your lesson has helped others. You can also ask your learners to tell stories from their own personal and/or professional lives that you can use to drive your points home.  

Pro tip: If you’re using an LMS, you can illustrate your stories via cartoons, images, and colors.

  1. Microlearning

The average attention span of an adult is 20 minutes. So if your class lasts for 60 minutes, there’s a good chance most, if not all, of your students will zone out by the 30-minute mark. This is usually caused by cognitive overload, which you can prevent by breaking up information. 

This is known as microlearning

Instead of explaining everything at once, break your course down into 20- to 30-minute lessons that progress logically as you teach the topic. This ensures that your students can take a break after each lesson to recharge and prepare for the next one. 

Pro tip: Make learning easier for your students by providing them with notes or slides that highlight the key points of each lesson. This will help them review what they learned, and identify where each section begins and ends.

  1. Immersive learning

Immersive learning involves using advanced technology to simulate real-world situations and help students learn new skills. This teaching method combines the immersive feeling of virtual reality (VR) with advanced learning theory and spatial design to improve students’ engagement and retention of new information. 

The great thing about immersive technologies is that they blur the lines between reality and illusion, so learners become active participants, instead of passive spectators. With immersive technologies, teachers can recreate virtual learning environments that don’t have the barriers that may exist in the actual environment. 

For instance, say a car manufacturing company is training engineering interns on how to assemble the body of a car. Instead of risking injuries by demonstrating this in an actual car factory, it’d be cheaper and safer to generate a virtual factory where students can learn how to assemble a car. 

With virtual reality, learners can develop their skills in a safe environment where success can be accurately measured.

Help your adult students learn better

While the techniques involved in adult education have changed since Malcolm Knowles came up with the Theory of Andragogy, many of his assumptions and principles still apply today. 

Helping adults learn effectively requires educators to put their learners first, pay attention to their previous knowledge and life experiences, and give them free rein to decide how they’d like to receive new information and participate in their own learning process.


  1. What is the definition of Andragogy?

Andragogy is a theory proposed by American educator, Malcolm Knowles, on how educators can facilitate learning for adults. 

  1. What are the six principles of Andragogy?

The six principles of andragogy are: 

  • Self-concept: As they mature, adult learners become independent and self-directed enough to make learning decisions for themselves.
  • Adult learner experience: Adults are able to draw on their wealth of life experiences to understand new concepts and skills better. 
  • Readiness to learn: Adults are more likely to learn things that they need to thrive in their personal or professional lives.
  • Orientation to learning: Adults are more inclined to learn skills they can apply immediately, rather than in the future. They tend to focus more on the problem(s) the skill will solve, rather than the content itself. 
  • Motivation to learn: Adults are more motivated by internal factors than external pressures. 
  • Active learning: To teach adults effectively, educators have to encourage them to actively participate in their learning process.
  1. How can I implement Andragogy in my teaching practices?

Some great ways to implement andragogy in your teaching practices include: 

  • Learning about your students’ backgrounds and using them to inspire your lessons.
  • Encourage students to participate in their learning experiences.
  • Encourage self-directed learning 
  • Use real-life examples in your lesson content
  • Give your students problems and let them brainstorm the solutions on their own. They can also work together to come up with an explanation. 
  1. What is the difference between Andragogy and Pedagogy?

Pedagogy is the teaching of children, while andragogy is the art of facilitating learning in adults. With pedagogy, teachers lead the lessons because children are dependent on them. But with andragogy, lessons are student-led with the teacher as a facilitator or guide. This is because adults are usually independent, self-directed, and aware enough to make learning decisions for themselves.

  1. What are the criticisms of Andragogy?

Some of the criticisms of andragogy by educators are: 

  • It doesn’t work well with people who struggle to motivate themselves or need more guidance than others.
  • Some adults cannot draw on their life experiences to understand new information better. This is either because they are physically or mentally unable to or their experiences don’t relate to the new skill they’re trying to learn.
  • Some adults learn new things, not because they want to solve a problem, but because they think learning is fun.
  • Some adults are influenced to learn by external factors, such as class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. 
  • Contrary to Knowles’ assumption that people learn things to solve their personal/work problems, some adults learn because they want to solve problems in their communities.

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