6 Principles of Adult Learning Theory


Adult learning theory and it’s principles is widely used in many adult education centers and occupational placement and advancement courses. You can see examples of it in many corporations and their on-boarding process.

Adult learning, known in its academic term as Andragogy, is the science (theory and practice) of adult education. It was first used in Europe as early as the 1830’s and later popularized by Malcolm Knowles, an American adult educator.

After years of practice and and theory modeling, Malcolm Knowles defined adult learning with six principles to better differentiate Andragogy (man-leading in Greek) from Pedagogy (child-leading).

Knowing these adult learning principles and using in them in your instructional design, for offline classes or online classes, will make you a much more effective and respected educator and instructional designer, especially in the eyes of your colleagues (and your students of course).

The Six Principles and How to Apply Them

1. They are Self motivated – Think about it, the only reason they are in your class is because they choose to be there. It is not mandatory for them to learn, they can be at home watching TV. Instead, they spend their time learning out of their own internal motivation to do so. Keep that in mind and treat them with a level of respect and autonomy, in other words, with less supervision and more student responsibility.

2. Use life experiences to facilitate learning – Imagine you are business teacher explaining how to start a business to a serial entrepreneur. That lecture will go on deft ears. As a instructor spend additional time learning about your students as you can then leverage their experience to teach the class. With this approach you not only teach the class with real life examples but gain the respect and attention of the students themselves.

3. They are task and goal oriented – Adult learners are in your class because they want to solve a problem. They have a clearly defined task that brought them to you to solve. The best approach on your part would be to ask them why they are here and how can you help them. This could be with their client, work, or personal life goals.

4. What they learn needs to be relevant to their needs – If your student is a professional photographer, do you think he will learn Spanish better reading a Spanish written article about photography or a news article about the politics in Mexico? Exactly. Make the study material relevant to the student. It will take more work on your part, but the results and comprehension will be well worth it.

5. Practical in their understanding of the material – This is where adult learning theory meets practice and where you can just see the words, what’s in it for me? in your students eyes. Be as detailed as possible, and explain the why’s and the how’s of your lesson, so that your students can apply the material they learn in their own lives.

6. They like to bee seen as equals – Respect is key in keeping your students engaged and interested in your class. Remember, some of your students probably make more that you do and others are probably older that you are (or both). So take interest in them and acknowledge their past knowledge and life experience, this will help participation and better class involvement on their part. This is probably one the most important principles defined by Malcolm Knowles.

Practice Theory Makes Perfect

In addition to the principles mentioned above, you should also bare in mind that as individuals, there are also different types of adult learning styles and strategies. One such example is active practice, where students are involved in simulations, games, and live demonstrations.

Learning these styles and the different techniques you can use in your class room can make a big difference.

Additionally, there is a growing belief that many of the principles of adult learning can be applied to child learning. This is a popular subject among the Andragogy and Pedagogy camps that has been going on for years.

Either way, the principles alone can help guide you in your teachings, when used properly, in adult education. They will better facilitate the process of learning and make adult learning theory a matter of practice.