Introduction to TEL

Day 4: Is Adult Learning Different?

adult learners
By Vicwag, sourced from Pixabay, downloaded 12/11/18

Since our context is Higher Education, we are in the adult education business, so we need to consider whether general “pedagogical” theory which is based on the education and development of the child, is applicable in our context. Malcolm Knowles thought otherwise, and developed a set of assumptions which, he theorised, distinguished adult learning from child learning. Knowles’ theory of androgogy was based on the idea that adults are more self-directed, more intrinsically motivated and have more life experience to build on, than children. His list of assumptions about adult learning is often used as a framework to approach designing learning in an adult context:

  1. Self-concept: As people mature, they move from being a dependent personality toward being more self-directed
  2. Experience: As people mature, they amass a growing set of experiences that provide a fertile resource for learning
  3. Readiness to learn: As people mature, they are more interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives
  4. Orientation to learning: As people mature, their time perspective changes from gathering knowledge for future use to immediate application of knowledge. As such, adult learners become more problem-centered rather than subject-centered (Knowles, 1980)
  5. Motivation to learn: As people mature, they become more motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment
  6. Relevance: As people mature, they need to know why they need to learn something (Knowles, 1984). Furthermore, because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing or, at least, assisting in the planning and implementation of their own learning.

These assumptions fit nicely into our discussion about levels of learning and motivation, because of course intrinsic motivation will be enhanced when the learner sees the material as somehow very relevant to their lives, particularly if it is applicable immediately to their lives and their progress in the course. Because the adult learner is self-directed and has intrinsic motivation, their learning is likely to be deep rather than surface learning. (However variations in this can occur depending on individual circumstances, which might force an individual to take a more strategic and “surface” approach). Since Knowles wrote his theory about adult learning, it has been critiqued and also developed further. The thinking is now that the characteristics of the way an adult learns as described by Knowles can be equally applied to children and adolescents.

If you would like to know more, there is a useful overview of Knowles’ life and ideas, on the Infed website page about him.

Teaching strategies

Activities that facilitate the adult learner to express and use knowledge they have developed from their own life experience will help engage them and help them see the relevance of the learning. This can include introducing a new topic by finding out what their existing knowledge is – through an activity, class discussion or similar.

Application of the learning to scenarios, work experience, or problem solving will also appeal to independent adult learners, who are most motivated when they can immediately try out ideas and knowledge with real tasks.

Independent learning as well as group collaboration are valued by adult learners who are often already working in groups and teams in the workplace.

This independent, collaborative and problem-solving approach lends itself to flexible and blended learning strategies, using e-learning platforms, wikis, blogs, and discussion boards.  It may also be enhanced by mobile learning techniques using Augmented Reality tools, or using mobile devices to capture, produce and share the student’s own research. Adults particularly appreciate flexible arrangements for study as they cannot always be at face to face meetings and lectures due to work and family commitments.

question mark


Share your thoughts on one or both of the following:

  • How useful do you find Knowles’ framework on Adult Learning?  Do you think you can use his ideas when you are conceptualising and planning your learning programs?
  • Do you feel that your students would respond well to course design and teaching approaches based on Knowles’ assumptions of adult learning, such as independence, curiosity, intrinsic enjoyment and interest, and seeking practical relevance?  Or do you feel sometimes your students lack self-discipline and motivation, and require more prompting and guidance?

18 thoughts on “Day 4: Is Adult Learning Different?

  1. I think Knowles’ framework is useful, and I already implement many of the ideas in my planning and teaching. My students have mixed-responses to this approach. On one hand, they enjoy the practical relevance and curiosity. On the other, while they enjoy the notion of independence, they complain about the additional responsibilities that come with that independence. As such, my students, in general, still need a lot of prompting and guidance.

    Hence, I feel that Knowles’ andragogy may be directed at a by-gone era. I often lament that my students, even in my postgrad courses, tend to lack the maturity that is expected of them, especially in terms of self-direction, which seems to be integral to the other elements. Students are increasingly using Higher Education as an extended gap-year. They come (back) to uni when they don’t know what to do with their lives. They chop and change degrees. A very small handful of my Masters students (and even fewer undergrads) have a life plan and know how this degree fits into it. The rest are just cruising along hoping the answer to the mystery of life magically falls into their laps. I believe this is a reflection of wider issues in society, and not just with the Higher Education sector.

    1. Hi Bhavani, it is interesting to hear your perspective on the adults in your post-grad course and how they respond to the challenges of higher education and indeed, life itself! We certainly do live in a different age to that of Knowles, where life seems more complicated and busy, but people are often not clear as to their purpose in life. I think you have touched on a much wider issue here – educators can only do so much!

    2. Hi Bhavani,
      I too find your observations about your students interesting. I have taught in a post-grad context (mainly) for 10 years. I do find there is a ‘changeover’ period when students enter our course where they come to the realisation that the ‘spoon-fed’ schemas they have been reinforced previously, are no longer at play. However once we adjust the settings most students thrive (even if they recognise it is hard). This idea that education can be hard, probably also needs to be interrogated more too. I suspect there is a difference between busy learning (doing things for the sake of doing them) and meaningful challenges (grappling with difficult concepts/tasks because they have some more intrinsic purpose than grades). To this end there has been some interesting work started by colleagues on the role of meaningful challenge in learning which I think probably engages nicely with Knowles theory of adult learning and with possible solutions to motivation and engagement (O’Brien, M & Tang, S 2013, ‘Stop struggling for the struggle’s sake: Make it meaningful’, The International First Year in Higher Education Conference, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, New Zealand, pp. 1-10.)

      On a side note, I have also taught undergraduate first years as well, and find that for some of them, the practices that allowed them to be successful at high school (and get into the course in the first place) are the complete opposite of Knowles approach. But similarly to the post-graduates it is possible to adjust expectations a little and provide space for students to make this transition to taking more responsibility for their learning (although you won’t be loved by everyone…which can be difficult in SELTs). Also, I must say that one of the reasons I often prefer teaching students who have taken a gap year(s) prior to coming into their degrees is that they come with a renewed approach to their learning – their intrinsic motivations are more apparent from the beginning.

      1. Hi Anneka, great insights – and you have made a very salient point in terms of SELTs results and the risks of challenging students. That brings up the whole issue of students as “customers,” which will have to be the subject of another Coffee Course! Thanks for the reference, the title is enough to get me interested in reading that.

    3. Hi Bhavani,

      I tend to agree with you. I’m wondering whether the adult students who sought out further education in 1984 were different from today. Back then most people didn’t go to uni to get a job, you could get a good job without it. Now it just seems like the next thing you do after High School. And High school these days is often about memorizing things to regurgitate in a test (so many of my High school teacher friends tell me). My personal belief is that the general maturity of students in undergrad or postgrad is not quite up to Knowles level unless they have significant life/work experience. This is not to say all students without significant experience are immature, but the general level of maturity and intrinsic motivation/self directedness is probably lower than it was in an early era

  2. I am not sure what “Knowles’ framework on Adult Learning” is: just that adults are self-directed learners? Then I don’t think it is a lot of use. Children can also be partly self-directed, and adults can’t be entirely self-directed. In Steiner education children are encouraged and guided, without this being too overt.

    My masters by coursework students would not do well with a course design not carefully scaffolded. I could simply set out the assessment criteria, provide some learning materials, and leave it to the students to do in their own time. But the completion rate would likely drop by 90%.

    As it is, I use scheduled learning exercises and an assessment scheme to keep the students working. But I try to keep my own input limited: rather than participate directly in forum discussions and telling the students my views, I privately prompt individual students to contribute.

    As a university student myself, I found I needed regular prodding to keep studying. As a part time on-line international student (in the first generation of my family to attend university), I needed a lot of prodding. 😉

    Cathy Stone developed guidelines for improving student outcomes of online students, which I suggest could be applied to all students:

    * Stone, Cathy. 2017. Opportunity through Online Learning: Improving student access, participation and success in higher education. The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). Curtin University: Perth.

    1. Hi Tom, if you get time to read a bit more about Knowles and related “adult learning” theory you will find that it is about more than just self-directed learning, in fact it takes much of its approach from the constructivist approach that says we construct our own knowledge from our real lived experiences (more about this tomorrow!). And while self-directed learning is great for adults, this does not negate the need for scaffolding and support. It sounds like you are successfully using this scaffolding in the form of structure and activities to keep your students on board. Thanks for the Cathy Stone resource – she is great! She is very good and spelling out exactly what structure, scaffolding and support is needed in on line learning environments to keep students involved and feeling part of the learning community.

  3. Bhavani, whatever you do students will complain. One useful thing I have found in tutoring the ANU TechLauncher students is the value of them discussing their learning with each other. This way students get useful tips on each other, rather than just complaining to their instructors.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Completely agree. It’s one of the reasons why I encourage collaborative learning opportunities.

      The complaints come more in the format of behaviour; poor time-management, inability/unwillingness to take initiative, low internal motivation, etc.

  4. I have always assumed Knowles work to be applicable in adult class rooms. I implicitly adopt his assumptions about learners when designing in class activities. I assume learners have a strong sense of self and who they are, that they have experience to a degree, and that they are keen or ready to learn. I deliver structured content but take breaks in the delivery so that learners can apply what they are learning to questions, and cases and share their ideas in discussion. I also believe adult learners develop learning skills through higher education such that they are able to continue post formal education through life long learning. I think people apply learning skills in the workplace too.

    My experience of students at postgraduate level is very positive as I have found learners at that level are committed to learning, motivated, and self directed. My experience of undergraduate learners is quite similar. I believe though thatere there is almost always a need to guide learners, support them, and find ways to facilitate their learning. If we do these things then I think we intrinsically provide motivation.

    1. Hi Denise, you have quite a different experience of your post grad students than Bhavani – I wonder if this might be to do with the type of study they are engaged in, and the professional contexts they are studying towards. Or is it just random chance?? I agree with you that although independent, self-directed learning is best for adults, this does not mean they do not need guidance and support.

  5. I think Knowle’s framework is worth considering in an adult context, but I think the updates to acknowledge that the same approach applies regardless of student age is really important.
    When I was a student, the ‘why’ of everything was super important to me – I was much more engaged if I had a sense of why the information I was being asked to learn was important or relevant. I try to take this approach as much as possible in my teaching, as well as in other aspects of my science (e.g., communication, grant writing). I think being able to relate to the material, whether through personal experiences, or through seeing a clear link between knowledge and application, is probably one of the most important things we need to provide our students with.

    1. Hi Angela, I really like your point that many students benefit from having the “why” taken seriously by teachers – not just of the content itself, but the reasons it is important to learn, and how it applies in real life. This definitely helps certain students to stay motivated and engaged. And this is very much how many adults (and some children!) prefer to learn.

  6. I found reading up on Andragogy and Knowles’ theory on adult learning to be very interesting.
    The concepts themselves make sense. At both an undergraduate, and post-graduate, the six assumptions given above sound like they should stand true. That said, after reading prior comments from other course participants, and reflecting on my own experiences, it does often feel as those assumptions can’t be made.
    Students complain about a lack of guidance or don’t want to study a subject if it is “low yield” (ie. less likely to be found on the exam). Students often attend sessions unprepared and appear to want to be spoon-fed.

    I think there may be a number of reasons for this. I think university is partially hyper-competitive and so people are driven by extrinsic motivators such as marks, and students often have a large workload so perhaps can’t go down as many “rabbit holes” as their curiosities may desire. Many courses may also not reward prior experience if you’re competing against other students to almost memorise the required information presented in lectures.

    That said, the students that seem most engaged and excited by class, are those that appear to more meet the assumptions presented by Knowles’. They are self-directed and often want ideas for additional material, they use their prior experiences to add to the discussions or to teach others, they come prepared and orientate their learning by reflecting on what they’ve already seen, and they shift their motivation by considering what they are interested in and what will be helpful in the future, rather than purely what will get them the best marks.

    Within medicine, I often find that student who’ve come straight from an undergraduate degree want to be spoon-fed, but those with some additional “life-experience” appear more likely to meet Knowles’ framework (this is of course a broad generalisation). However, as students transition from classroom based learning to the clinical environment, they are somewhat forced to become self-directed, use their experience and find their own motivation, lest they won’t cope and will get to the end of the year and realise no-one spoon-fed them the knowledge they were meant to partially find for themselves.

  7. I think the concept of androgogy is important and the first time I came across it in a Foundations class it really resonated. I think perhaps though, considering 18 year olds as adults perhaps is a bit misleading. And I think one of examples of this is the lack of experience and thus resilience students have. They are still very blinkered about the options and pathways available to them in life, and so small set backs are often disastrous. When uni is your whole world, then failing a course or a piece of assessment, particularly if you have always done well, is akin to an existential crisis. Equally while we roll our eyes at students begging for extensions because of a relationship breakup, at that age, without the benefit of a lot more hindsight and experience it can be a genuine life stopping experience. So while yes, uni students mostly are more ready and motivated etc, I do think we need to manage our expectations of them in regards to a purely androgogy based approach.

  8. I was a high school teacher before I went into adult education. I quickly learned that they are two different styles of teaching! To motivate my high school students, I would use a lot more ‘carrots and sticks’. Both carrots and sticks often revolved around marks, which were expressed in percentages. Horrible. I find it impossible to express someone’s language proficiency in this way, and students would compare marks (‘Why did she get 73% when I only got 71%?’).
    When I started teaching in adult education, I quickly learned that students were a lot less concerned about their marks (my school didn’t even use them, which is probably part of the reason) and did not need carrots and sticks as much. Of course, I still needed to set deadlines and scaffold the learning, but their motivation to meet them would be centred more around other things, e.g. being able to participate in a meaningful way in the discussion; or receiving peer feedback to a writing task. I certainly also noticed a higher readiness to learn, and higher satisfaction rates when the course content was something that they could apply straight away.

    1. Hi Melde! It is really helpful to hear from you, as someone who has experienced teaching both young students and adult students. Interesting to hear how your students were more motivated by meaningful tasks and engagement – I wonder what lessons we can take from this into how we design university courses in to the future?

  9. In general, I think adult learning works well, as people are mature to take responsibility of their own studies and they are also very determined or driven by their own passion to study. Those with work experience study really well if the content they study aligns well with what their own perception of their work needs is. This again aligns with socio-technical theories of technology acceptance, adoption, and use such as TAM, UTAUT, and ANT. However, what I sometimes struggle with is the cohort of my typical young students who have not worked yet — but they tend to come back and thank me that I have made them shine in job markets.

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