Andragogy - the art and science of adult learning

Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) was an American educator well known for the use of the term Andragogy as synonymous to the adult education.

In 1980, Knowles made 4 assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners (andragogy) that are different from the assumptions about child learners (pedagogy). In 1984, Knowles added the 5th assumption.

  1. Self-concept
    As a person matures his/her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being. Adults need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

  2. Adult Learner Experience
    As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning. Adult learners have a variety of experiences of life which represent the richest resource for learning. These experiences are however imbued with bias and presupposition. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.

  3. Readiness to Learn
    As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles. Adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.

  4. Orientation to Learning
    As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centeredness to one of problem centeredness. Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive that it will help them perform tasks they confront in their life situations. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

  5. Motivation to Learn
    As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (Knowles, 1984:12). Adult learners need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.

The Nature of the Adult Learner 

Dr. Jim Mirabella ( from Jacksonville University writes, "Adults are not simply tall, grown-up kids. You are not the same person you were yesterday, let alone 25 years ago. You have changed physiologically, psychologically, and socially. You view time differently than you did as a child. Your understanding of world events is probably different today than they were just a few years ago. You have acquired life experiences that impact how you process new learning. Sometimes life expeience can actually stand in the way of acquiring new ideas. As adults, we have changed. Our views toward learning and teaching have changed. We want and deserve respect from our instructors. Learning, so central to human behavior, yet so elusive to understanding, defies easy definition and simple theorizing. There is no "one size fits all" theory of adult learning. But few would disagree with the notion that adults are different than children. Just as you don't want to be treated as a child, neither do adult learners." (  

To assess your knowledge of adult learners' orientation to learning, their mental abilities, physiological characteristics, and psychological characteristics, download, print, and take the Rossman Adult Learning Inventory (RALI) (.pdf).

Access answers and explanations to the 44 RALI questions (.pdf).

Teaching Implication of Adult Learners


Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.

Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.