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Adult learning theory: The principles of andragogy 

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Marc Booker, PhD,  Vice Provost

Reviewed by Marc Booker, PhD, Vice Provost, Strategy

This article was updated on February 12, 2024.

Just as adults think, act and process information differently than children, so, too, do they learn differently. In fact, there’s a plethora of research about what learning practices are most effective for adults. In this article, we speak with Jason Covert, EdD, senior learning experience designer at University of Phoenix, and explore some of those principles.

What is adult learning theory?

For centuries, education has provided a foundation for societal growth and prosperity. Up until the mid-20th century, however, our understanding of learning theory was informed mostly through observation and research dedicated to the education of children (i.e., pedagogy).

As society advanced, the need for more highly qualified workers steadily grew, necessitating a need for more formal education opportunities for adults. While efforts were made to support these needs, adult education at the time was viewed as an uncoordinated enterprise that failed to advance any specific kind of knowledge.

In 1968, Malcolm Knowles, a professor of education at Boston University, argued that “the biggest obstacle to the achievement of the full potential of adult education has been that it has been tied to and it has been hamstrung by the concepts and the methods of the traditional education of children.” To address this problem, Knowles called for a systemic change in adult education that would end the practice of teaching adults like children to one that would focus on supporting the unique characteristics and needs of adult learners. He referred to this as andragogy.

Knowles theorized that adult learning and childhood learning are entirely different and that adults do not process or retain information in the same manner as children. As such, he proposed an alternative set of assumptions about adult learners that serve as the basic adult learning principles:

  • Adults have a need to know.
  • Adults are self-directed.
  • Adults draw upon their lived experiences.
  • Adults have a readiness to learn.
  • An adult’s orientation to learning is life-centered.
  • Adults are driven by a motivation to learn.

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The principles of andragogy

Portrait of Jason Covert, EdD

Jason Covert, EdD
Senior learning experience designer at University of Phoenix

Covert shares: “Adult learners can greatly benefit from education that thoughtfully applies the six foundational principles of andragogy. Central to these principles is the understanding that adults typically prefer self-directed learning and are motivated by internal factors.”

As Knowles noted, adult learners use their accumulated life experiences in their learning and place a significant emphasis on achieving long-term goals. This focus sets adult education apart from traditional teaching methods, offering a distinctive and effective framework for the educational development of adult learners.

Covert continues: “An in-depth understanding of adult learning theory is not only beneficial for adult learners but is also critical for educators and supervisors responsible for adult education. By integrating these adult learning principles into their teaching methods, educators can significantly improve their effectiveness.”

Here’s a basic synopsis of the six andragogical principles of adult learning:

  1. Need to know: Adults have a desire to understand the underlying reasons for their learning. They engage more deeply when they perceive the relevance and utility of new knowledge, emphasizing the importance of context and applicability in adult education.
  2. Self-directed learning: Adult learners demonstrate a preference for autonomy over their learning. This includes setting their own learning objectives, selecting the methods and resources for their learning, and conducting self-assessments of their progress.
  3. Drawing from lived experiences: Adults integrate their personal and professional experiences into their learning process. This enriches the learning experience and enables them to connect new knowledge with existing frameworks, thereby facilitating deeper understanding and retention.
  4. Readiness to learn: Adult learners are generally more inclined to engage in activities when they perceive a direct relevance to their lives. This readiness is often triggered by real-world tasks or challenges, making situational learning particularly effective.
  5. Life-centered orientation to learning: The focus of adult learning frequently centers on practical problem-solving and goal achievement. Adult learners tend to favor learning situations that are closely aligned with their life experiences and that offer immediate applicability to their lives.
  6. Intrinsic motivation: The driving force behind adult learning is predominantly internal motivation. This intrinsic drive often stems from desires for personal development, career progression, enhanced job performance and other self-determined incentives, rather than external compulsion or rewards.

Why is adult learning theory important?

Covert explains: “Adult learning theory plays an important role in both educational and professional development contexts, mostly because it concentrates on understanding and accommodating the distinct learning needs of adults. The relevance of this theory spans a broad spectrum, establishing it as an essential resource for educators and academic organizations.”

Several critical factors underscore its importance. Adult learning theory:

  • Recognizes the unique learning preferences of adults: Adult learners differ from children in their learning styles. They bring a wealth of life experiences and existing knowledge, which shapes their approach to learning new information. Recognizing these unique styles is important for creating effective learning environments that cater to adults.
  • Enhances engagement and retention: Adult learning theory emphasizes the relevance and practical application of knowledge. Adults are more motivated to learn when they see the direct benefit of the learning material to their personal or professional life. By making learning relevant, adult education becomes more engaging and effective, leading to better retention and application of knowledge.
  • Aligns with adult motivations and goals: Adult learners are often driven by specific goals such as career advancement, personal growth or skill improvement. Adult learning theory acknowledges these motivations and aligns learning objectives accordingly. This alignment ensures that learning is not only relevant but also directly contributes to achieving the learners’ goals.
  • Adapts to changing workplace and societal needs: In today’s rapidly changing world, continuous learning is essential. Adult learning theory is crucial in helping adults adapt to new technologies, methodologies and societal changes, ensuring that they remain competent and competitive in their respective fields.

Challenges of adult learning

Adults might face a variety of challenges when trying to learn, whether in school or at work.  This means that learning as an adult requires different strategies and support compared to when we were younger. Some common challenges include:

  • Time constraints: Balancing work and family can make it difficult for adults to squeeze in time for studying and attending to their classwork. However, options like online courses, learning at your own pace, and schedules that cater to working adults can make juggling everything a bit easier.
  • Confidence issues: Facing a younger workforce or student peers can be intimidating for even the most experienced professionals. Adults might feel disconnected from younger students because of differing values and life stages. But it's important for adult learners to recognize the value of their own life experiences and appreciate the diverse perspectives that students of all ages bring to the learning environment.
  • Financial considerations: Returning to college is a financial commitment. With the potential benefits, the cost can be daunting, particularly when adults are already budgeting for major expenses. Learning how to financially plan for education can help adults tackle these challenges and make informed decisions.
  • Self-doubt: Adults who haven't been in school for a while might doubt their ability to adapt and learn new skills. However, engaging in lifelong learning is important for career success in a rapidly evolving job market and can also contribute to maintaining mental agility as we age. Going to school as an adult, in other words, can help you in multiple ways if you know how to optimize the experience. 

Adult learning theory at University of Phoenix 

Considering University of Phoenix’s commitment to student success, it’s no surprise adult learning theory plays a pivotal role in course design and instruction. According to Vice Provost Doris Savron, the University takes a 360-degree approach to leverage adult learning theory for student success. "When we design programs and curriculum, this is at the forefront of our approaches," she explains. That means the process looks like this:

  1. UOPX identifies the skills critical to today’s employers and then maps those to the relevant program blueprints.
  2. Courses are designed with weekly activities and deliverables that give students the opportunity to gain new insights and then apply them, whether in a classroom discussion, a collaborative activity or a project set within a real-world context. Collaborative learning, Savron notes, enables students to not only learn from faculty but also from other participants’ diverse experiences and knowledge.
  3. Students are assessed on their ability to demonstrate their skills in those projects and activities.
  4. Faculty bring their industry experience to the table via course discussions and project feedback, thereby enhancing the real-world relevance of course lessons.

"In this approach," Savron explains, "students get an opportunity to reflect, plan and direct their work for how it fits best in their lives each week [thanks to 24/7 access to the classroom]. They get to apply theory to practice through projects, case studies, or collaborative activities and classmates. And they get feedback from faculty who are practicing in the areas they are instructing.”

This instructional design intentionally mirrors the workplace, Savron notes, both to prepare students for their careers and because it is generally effective for adult learning."[Students’] work environments are set up in a way that expects them to apply their learning to new circumstances and situations to solve problems," Savron observes. "They are generally expected to figure things out and are empowered to get their work done."

The same applies, she says, to UOPX classrooms, where information, collaborative opportunities and deadlines are presented to students, who can then leverage everything according to their experiences and schedules.

"All of this mimics what they might experience in a work environment while teaching them techniques and giving them tools to further their knowledge and skills applicable to the career path they chose," Savron says.

Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, adult learning theories offer valuable insight for how adults learn; and becoming a lifelong learner is one lesson that benefits everyone.

Learn more about the multitude of flexible, online certificate and degree programs at University of Phoenix by visiting the University’s website and requesting more information!

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Michael Feder is a Content Marketing Specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT and everything in between. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program, and a New Jersey native!


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