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July 24, 2019



the andragogy theory

There has been much research into pedagogy over the years, however significantly less study of andragogy. The two sport a multitude of differences, where the latter capitalizes on unique learning styles and strengths of adult learners.


Andragogy refers to the method and practice of teaching adult learners.

Andragogy Learning Theory

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1968) coined the Andragogy Theory as the theory of adult learning. It is no surprise that adults learn differently than children, whereby adults are self-directed and ready to learn.

3 notable figures who have worked on the Andragogy Theory:

  1. Coined by Alexander Kapp in 1833.
  2. Developed into a theory of adult education by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
  3. Became very popular in the US by the American educator Malcolm Knowles.

Principles of the Andragogy Theory

In his studies, Knowles’ research relies on five particular assumptions.

  1. Self-concept. A secure self-concept comes with maturity, meaning that adults are able to take initiative to direct their own learning.
  2. Past learning experience. Adults have had myriad experiences of which they can draw upon whilst they learn.
  3. Readiness to learn. Adults tend to see value in education as a worthwhile investment.
  4. Practical reasons to learn. There is usually a practical reason why adults learn. This may mean they are entering a new field of work or are required to complete extra training.
  5. Driven by internal motivation. Children are motivated in the avoidance of punishment or in the achievement of reward, meaning they are driven by external factors. Adults, on the other hand, are internally motivated.

Malcolm Knowles

For some context, Malcolm Knowles is regarded as one of the most central US figures in adult education in the second half of the twentieth century. After completing his education at Harvard, he became passionate about adult learning and began to think about what it means to be a facilitator of learning rather than a teacher.

He is, of course, famous for the adoption of Andragogy Theory and is also credited with being a fundamental influence in the development of the Humanist Learning Theory. With this, Knowles created a more structured plan to guide learning experiences. His first book Informal Adult Education was published in 1950 and suggested that informal programs are more likely to use group and forum approaches, which can result in better learning experiences, particularly in adult education.

What are the principles of the andragogy learning theory?

Knowles designed four principles of andragogy for successful adult learning. They are as follows:

  1. Since adults are self-directed, they should have a say in the content and process of their learning.
  2. Because adults have so much experience to draw from, their learning should focus on adding to what they have already learned in the past.
  3. Since adults are looking for practical learning, content should focus on issues related to their work or personal life.
  4. Additionally, learning should be centered on solving problems instead of memorizing content.
An adult learning with edapp

Applications of the Andragogy Learning Theory

As with any learning theory, the andragogy theory has some pitfalls revealed by critics and other scholars. An obvious one is that some points in the theory, inevitably, do not apply to every adult. Further, some of these points can also apply to children, i.e. the points are not unique to the education of adults alone.

Criticism of the theory has also been received based on the fact that some points and assumptions have not been empirically proven. Although, some scholars have reported the findings to be prevalent in and applicable to various situations.

Andragogy is benefited by mobile learning as a large component of mLearning is the ability to self-direct learning. Learners obviously receive less supervision and more lenience from educators in an online environment, suiting their needs and preferences.

Andragogy learning techniques

Constructivism —  It is important to tap into the unique set of life and learning experiences that an adult learner brings to academic or corporate training. Efforts to link course content to prior understandings increase students’ ability to engage with and retain new knowledge, resulting in a powerful network of understanding. 

Autonomous learning — Unlike children, adults have a secure sense of self-concept that makes them naturally self-directed as learners.  The flexible nature of mobile microlearning is ideal for an autonomous learning model that puts the student at the center of the experience. Choice and options matter to adult learners in terms of course content, activities, and assessments to suit different learning styles.

Inquiry-based learning  — In contrast to the rote memorization of content, inquiry-based or problem-based learning is particularly well suited to adult students, as it supports autonomous learning and generates deeper understandings through a process of students posing their own questions and problem-solving through research and observation.

Real-world application — Adults tend to be more results-orientated than children when it comes to education, and, generally speaking, they prefer educational content to have a practical, real-world application. Adults respond particularly well to simulation-based activities and demonstrations that enable them to apply what they have learned immediately. 

Immersive learning — Adults learn best when they are emotionally invested in rich multi-sensory content. In contrast to traditional educational techniques, immersive simulations or augmented reality (AR) appeal to the learner on a cognitive, emotional, and physical basis.

Motivating adults to learn with the Andragogy Learning Theory

  1. Adult learners want to ensure that any educational investment they make is high ROI; they are driven by highly practical motivations, often tied to career advancements. Particularly in the corporate setting, attention should be devoted to pointing out the practical benefits (both in terms of business and individual outcomes) of the training. It may also be useful to tie any education back to professional development plans.
  2. Feedback is key when generating extrinsic motivation in adult learners. Feedback can take many forms through social acknowledgment on forum platforms, real rewards, or gamification mechanics.
  3. While feedback is important, adults tend to be more intrinsically motivated than children. Learner metrics and progress panels can tap into the intrinsic motivation of learners to achieve their personal best and gain a sense of accomplishment.
  4. Adult learners are naturally more motivated when they feel a sense of ownership over their own learning. Gaining learner buy-in by actively engaging with their feedback and options at the planning stage of a course is an effective way of driving up engagement before the course has formally begun.
  5. Creating a learning community and a shared reality is one of the most effective methods of boosting learning motivation. As we know, adults are much more receptive to learning in a social context, which is why it is important to take advantage of a social learning app features such as forum interactions and peer-to-peer teaching.

You may also be interested in;
Learning Theories
Active Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory
Cognitive Learning Theory

If you would like to learn more about how to build the most effective andragogical approach for adult learners!

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“Andragogy – Adult Learning Theory (Knowles),” in Learning Theories, September 30, 2017, https://www.learning-theories.com/andragogy-adult-learning-theory-knowles.html.

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Guest Author Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown is a senior technical editor and writer that has worked in the education and technology sectors for two decades. Their background experience includes curriculum development and course book creation.

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