Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory


Adult Learning Theory represents the concept of andragogy developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968, which examines the process of adult learning and the differentiative patterns as compared to child education. Adults appreciate self-directed learning, as they have an enormous reservoir of experiences functioning as their personal learning resource. Examining Knowles’ theory of adult learning will help comprehend how adult learners anticipate ways of understanding real-time experiences by pursuing the skills that can help address the challenges of life.

Defining the Assumptions

Knowle’s theory is based on the six main assumptions about adult learning that serve as key principles of andragogy. A famous educator centralized his theory on adults and their life experiences that shaped the concept of andragogy as the” art and science of helping adults learn” (Robinson and Breen, 2020, p. 15). The first assumption states that adults need to know the reason for learning new information before they begin the training process. Adults have to understand the purpose of the educative process and how they can benefit from it and apply it to real-life experiences. The second assumption refers to the self-concept of being independent learners, meaning that adults are accountable for their educational trail.

The third principle implies that adults integrate a broad range of life experiences into the learning process, enhancing the training and building new knowledge. The fourth principle states that adult learners are determined to apply the attained knowledge to a particular “stage of life or career development” (Tkatchov and Tkatchov, 2020, p. 8). The fifth assumption is focused on a problem- or task-oriented learning approach. The final, sixth principle asserts that adults are primarily driven by internal factors, such as self-improvement, desire to make a change, or attaining improved work-life satisfaction.

Examples of the Assumptions

Adult learning is a learner-centered process, wherein students define their unique ways of acquiring knowledge. For instance, the learner’s self-concept implies that adults should be able to handle their learning experiences. The assumption related to the role of personal experience suggests that adults obtain more experiences than children to contemplate and apply new information (McCauley, Hammer, and Hinojosa, 2017). Another principle refers to the adults’ readiness to learn, meaning that they are primed to attain new information as they experience various life stages. The learning-oriented assumption can be traced in using the lessons that are provided in terms of real-life events.

The motivation assumption is applied when adults are motivated by long-term internal incentives. For instance, an adult learner can be guided by increasing work satisfaction, the standard of living, or strong self-esteem. Some of the main triggers might be “the loss of a job or a divorce,” stimulating adults to learn something new (McCauley, et al., 2017, p. 318). Ultimately, each learning objective can be summarized by the adult’s need to know. An example is that adults learn as they understand the critical role of the information in personal terms and purposes based on their life circumstances.

Application to Adult Learning Activities

Knowles’ theory can be efficiently applied in adult learning activities within a classroom or training setting. According to Malik (2016), adults should be treated as “accepted, respected, and supported,” given that the facilitator and student pose equal roles in the learning experience (p. 56). Each of the andragogy assumptions can be enabled within a “cooperative learning climate” established by an educator (Stewart, 2019, p. 34). Considering that adults learn based on their own experience and individual purposes, it is essential to facilitate mutual planning and analyze learners’ needs and interests. The training objectives must be developed according to such learners’ requirements. An educator must design sequential activities by implementing different methods and resources.


Knowles’ theory of andragogy acknowledges that adults are independent and self-directed learners who take full responsibility for their actions. Such an idea serves as a fundamental aspect of developing adult learning programs based on Knowles’ theoretical approach. The core principles of andragogy can be applied in designing and developing organizational training programs by integrating personal context and knowledge evaluation to leverage the existing knowledge and successfully gain new skills.


Malik, M. (2016). Assessment of a professional development program on Adult Learning Theory. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 16(1), 47–70. doi:10.1353/pla.2016.0007

McCauley, K. D., Hammer, E., & Hinojosa, A. S. (2017). An andragogical approach to teaching leadership. Management Teaching Review, 2(4), 312–324. doi:10.1177/2379298117736885

Robinson, M., & Breen, H. (2020). Online nursing education: A collaborative approach: A collaborative approach. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Stewart, M. (2019). The art and science of patient education for health literacy. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Tkatchov, O., & Tkatchov, M. (2020). Proactive professional learning: Creating conditions for individual and organizational improvement. Rowman & Littlefield.

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ChalkyPapers. "Malcolm Knowles' Adult Learning Theory." July 12, 2023.