Learning theories


Learning theories
An overview of Andgragogy, the 5 assumptions and their importance to applying the learning theory. Share your options on the strengths and limitations of Andragogy and the implications for instructional design.

The term“andragogy” was coined by Alexander Knapp in 1833 when he tried to categorize Plato’s theory of education.  Malcom Knowles presented his theory of adult learning principles or andragogy some 150years later in 1984.  Andragogy, adult learning was presented by Knowles in contrast to pedagogy, child learning. 

Knowles’ 5assumptions were:

1.   Self-concept

2.   Experience

3.   Readiness to learn

4.   Orientation to learning

5.   Motivation to learn


To expandon these ideas:

Self-conceptis the idea that adults need to beresponsible for their decisions and education and involved in the planning andevaluation of their instruction. Adults are normally learning by choice, havingchosen what they want or need to learn for a clear end purpose.

Previous experience and knowledge held by learners can aid future learning, but any learned misconceptions need to be unlearned which can result in considerable hurdles to overcome.

Learning readiness is often closely associated to a need to know, in order to perform more effectively. This is often linked to the assuming of new roles or responsibilities. 

Orientation or problem centered focus – being able to apply new knowledge to problem-solving immediately.  Adults need to learn by doing, or experientially, even if that means learning from their mistakes.

Motivation, which in adult learners comes from internal factors, comes from the benefits of new knowledge to the learner.  Because they know why they are learning motivation is naturally higher.

There are also 4 principlesin adult learning that should be taken into consideration:


·     Adult learners need to be involved in the planning of content and the evaluations to be used.  

·     That experience and priorknowledge of adult learners should be leveraged during the learning process.  

·     Study subjects need to have an immediate and practical relevance for the learners.  They should be able to go away and put when they learn to use immediately.

·     Adults are generallyfocused on solving problems and are unlikely to be willing learners of learningfor learnings sake.

Knowles also believedthat andragogy should also produce various outcomes.

Andragogy is one of several adult learning theories. Other major theories are transformative learning, self-directed learning, experiential learning, and project-based learning.


Strengths and Limitations of Andragogy


Some of the strengthsof andragogy

·     Andragogy is largely self-directed, allowing learners to take control of their learning.  

·     It allows forlearners to have greater control over pacing, learning content and assessments.

·     It inspires instructors to do a better job connecting learning experiences to what their adult learners already know.  It can be used to leverage this prior knowledge against the new topics they are presented with.

·     It is a broad-basedmethod that can be implemented in a variety of education and professional trainingsettings.

Some of the limitations with andragogy that have come to light are the following:

·     Adult learners often come to the training with little experience of adult learning situations. Previous contact with learning is likely to have teachers as supervisors (as we might see in the behaviorist model of learning) rather than as facilitators of learning.  Students will need to unlearn reliance on their teachers.  

·     In andragogy motivation is seen as being an intrinsic element, as Houde (2006) states that intrinsic motivation is, “most likely to occur under conditions that support perceived competence, such as challenging contexts and positive feedback, as well as those that support perceived autonomy, such as opportunities for choice and the absence of external rewards or controls.”  

Extrinsic motivation is usually also a factor as often adult learning has been put in place to meet an organization’s demands.  

·     Another criticism of andragogy is it doesn't sufficiently take into account the cultural considerations of what will often be a diverse group of learners of different ages and from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds.

·     Andragogy describes perfect adult learners, but most learners are far from perfect.  They are far more likely to be difficult, opinionated and conflictual than child learner.

·     Adult learners aremeant to be involved in deciding their learning, but this ignores that thedemands/needs of the organization that is requesting the training.



Implications of Andragogy for Instructional Design

Adult learning theories should be kept in mind during the design of instructional material and learning paths, because they look at how the adult brain works.  

Adult preferences do not mirror younger learners’ preferences, a good example of this is gamification.  Where youngers learners are more likely to be motivated by extrinsic factors such as badges and leader boards this might not be the case with older adult learners who may already be feeling somewhat fragile about re-entering a learning environment, without feeling the pressure to compete with their fellow learners. Adults will tend to work towards the goals they need to meet, rather than the grades younger learners are focused upon.

Cognitive load as one ages can become a greater issue.  While concentration and the need to get something done may be stronger, the distractions may also be more powerful – so no longer just the call of the television or telephone, but the demands of a child may be calling you away from your work.  

Adult learners for various reasons (as mentioned above) need the material to be chunked as far as possible, breaking material down to its smallest component parts.  Long complex learning modules can overwhelm any learners.  To this end incorporating microlearning.  Micro learning is activities and assessments that deliver a full learning experience in just a few minutes, in short bursts of information from a point of view of need. Also use brief guides and guidelines.

Instructional designers need to map courses to correspond with the learners perceived needs. It is a difficult path for instructional designers, but they must find the balance between the learning needs and wants of the learners but also those of the stakeholder or institution requiring the learning. Finding the right fit is not easy, and in some circumstance such as compliance training it may not be possible.

Instructional designers will need to devise instructional strategies that align with greater use of real-life problem-solving activities. Designing activities with plenty of opportunity for experiential learning and tasks that work in groups.  Kinesthetic learning or learning by encouraging physical actions (simulations) and learning that evokes strong emotional responses (realistic scenarios that reveal cause-effect relationships) create powerful experiences that are not forgotten easily.  Role-playing activities, internships, and other hands-on tasks let learners apply the learning and thus truly “learn by doing.”

Where adult learners are involved in the design of training there is a greater chance of those needs being met.

Instructional designers will also need to choose a range of technologies to implement the instructional strategy.  Learners will be more diverse in their adoption and use of digital technology and are more likely to have on-the-go learning needs, where non-classroom-based learning is likely to be happening between real life activities of the learners.

With effective instructional design we can expect greater engagement of learners, which should represent a cost saving to organizations with learners showing observable changes in behavior and the application of new skills. Adults are largely aware of the skills they need to acquire for the challenges that need to meet.

Overview of Constructivism, Polly Watt, created on Canva
Andragogy for Instructional Design. Wendy Füllgraf, created on Canva
Infogram Adult Learning, Wendy Füllgraf, created on Canva
Mindmap of andragogy.  Polly Watt created on XMind.
No items found.

Caruso, J.   The Implications of Adult Learning Theory on Instructional Design for Workplace Training.

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

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007).  Learning in adulthood:  A comprehensive guide  (3rd ed.).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, M. K. (1996; 1999, 2010) ‘Andragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved: May 18, 2021 

Colman, H. (2019October) 6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice Retrieved: May19, 2021

Western Governors.(April 2020) University Online University Experience Adult Learning Theories and Principles. Retrieved: May19, 2021

Friel, G. Adult Learning Retrieved: May19, 2021

Houde, J. (2006) Andragogy and Motivation: An Examination of the Principles of Andragogy through Two Motivation Theories. North Carolina State University Retrieved: May 20, 2021

Picture credit:

Sunflower Andragogy for Instructional Design. Wendy Füllgraf, created on Canva

Infogram Adult Learning, Wendy Füllgraf, created on Canva

Mind Map of Andragogy, Polly Watt, created on XMind


Let's work together!

Want to have a chat, I'd love to hear from you. And here's how...

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.