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Malcolm Knowles and Adult Learning Theory

Updated on December 30, 2011

What is adult learning theory, or andragogy, and how does it differ from pedagogy? The answers can be found in a book entitled The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles and his colleagues.


The word pedagogy comes from the Greek words paid meaning child and agogus meaning “leader of.” It literally means leader or teacher of children. The underlying beliefs evolved nearly 1,000 years ago between in European monastic and cathedral schools. (Knowles et. al., 2011).

Pedagogy is a set of teacher-centered beliefs. The teacher has the fundamental role of determining what to teach and how to teach it. The children, or learners, are expected to accept the authority of the teacher. Their motivation comes externally from grades and teacher or parent approval.

Pedagogy runs counter to the concept of learning-centered education made prominent by Terry O’Banion, which places the focus on the students while the role of the teacher shifts to more of a facilitator.


The term andragogy was coined by Malcolm Knowles in 1973, when the first edition of the book The Adult Learner was published. Knowles, who was often referred to as the "Father of Andragogy," died in 1997, but his co-authors have kept his work alive. The 7th edition of The Adult Learner was released in 2011.

While often referred to as a learning theory, Knowles developed andragogy based primarily on his experiences as a trainer. However, andragogy is consistent with many researched learning theories, constructivism or constructivist learning theory being one of them.

There are six precepts, or assumptions as Knowles identified them, that differentiate andragogy from pedagogy (Knowles, et. at., 2011). These are:

  1. Adults need to know why they should learn something before they are ready to learn. They need to see the learning in a meaningful context and understand how it will be helpful to them.
  2. Adults have a need to be dealt with as self-directed learners. They resist being dealt with as children and being told what they need to learn.
  3. Adult learners bring many diverse experiences with them. They can provide their own, rich source of learning. They also bring assumptions and biases that may make them resist new ideas.
  4. Adult learners must be ready to learn. That readiness to learn comes from an understanding of how the learning will help them in the real world.
  5. The adult orientation to learning is life-centered. They are motivated to learn to the extent that they see the learning will help them perform tasks or solve problems.
  6. Adult learners respond to some external motivations. These include promotions, better jobs, and more money. Many, though not all, are motivated by the intrinsic need to keep growing and developing.

The Implications of Andragogy

Knowles applied his concept of andragogy primarily to training. His assumptions about adult learners are commonly applied in professional development training.

If one believes his assumptions hold true then they should also apply to higher education where the learners are, quite obviously, adults. Therein lie some of the challenges. How can the college instructor contextualize learning to make it real and relevant for the college student?

In some cases the relevance of learning is obvious to college students. This is the case in career oriented courses such as those in a nursing program. However, it is difficult for many college students to embrace some of the courses required for graduation. For example, physics majors may not see the importance of a general education courses such as English Composition. They learning-centered instructor will be mindful of this and do his or her best apply Knowles’ assumptions.


Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F. & Swanson, R.A. The Adult Learner., Oxford, UK: Elsevier, 2011.

O’Banion, T. Creating More Learning-Centered Community Colleges., Phoenix, AZ: League for Innovation 1997


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    • profile image

      William Jeffrey Haynes 

      14 months ago

      I have always been interested in heutagogy in developing a teaching theory that addresses the needs adults require especially after they have been out of learning mod for years. Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be adapted to help older learners maximize their ability to find success when re-entering the education process, It is a new and exciting journey for those over 50.

    • wendi_w profile image


      5 years ago from Midwest

      Interesting assessment but as a returning student at 50 there are other factors as well. I have the motivation and willingness, in fact I find I am interested in all forms of education now.. however my learning style and comprehension is very different than it was, thank you though for the interesting hub

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      the Teaching Doc, I am glad I started following you not too long ago or else I might have missed this article.

      I am ecstatic that you are publishing about Knowles and andragogy. Why? Because this is the heart of my now forming dissertation. I am actually going to argue how andragogy is not enough and that there needs to be a shift to heutagogy, coined by Hase and Kenyon in 2000 and further explained in 2007. They build off of Knowles's second assumption in an interesting way. I will also focus on an assessment method coined by Knowles as well.

      Voted up and useful.


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