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This page was originally authored by Janet Galbraith (2011).

The term “andragogy”, first proposed in opposition of pedagogy, has been popularized to mean “the art and science of how adults learn” as confirmed by NALD, The National Adult Literacy Database. It has more formally been defined by its originators as “any intentional and professionally guided activity that aims at a change in adult persons" (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005, p. 60). The proposed implications of andragogy as a learning theory have been met with much criticism and controversy.

Knowles' Six Assumptions for the Adult Learner


Historical Context

The roots of andragogy can be traced back to the approaches of Plato and his teacher, Socrates. The term itself had been used initially in 1883 by Alexander Kapp, a German high school grammar teacher who applied it to the lifelong necessity to learn through self-reflection as introduced by Plato (Fidishun, n.d.). The term had grown in use throughout Europe and eventually was introduced to a professor of adult education at Boston University, Malcolm Knowles, who can be credited with its widespread acceptance in 1968 when he published it in a journal article (then spelled “androgogy”) (Frisoli, n.d.). Knowles is often endorsed as being the founding father of adult learning, although many other theorists such as Brookfield, Mezirow, and Merriam have addressed the concept as well.

Used with permission from Microsoft

Positions and Intentions

Andragogy intended to shift from traditional pedagogical or didactical approaches which were teacher-directed (the what, when and how of learning determined by the teacher only) to a learner-centered methodology in which the needs of the learner are considered and the learner is afforded the opportunity to collaborate with the instructor in making decisions about their education. The role of instructor shifts from that of expert authoritarian to facilitator and coach (Bolden, 2008). This is in keeping with the humanist, behaviourist, and constructivist orientation of the andragogical approach and lays the foundation for the learner to reach full potential as a balanced emotional, psychological, and intellectual entity (Knowles, 1980). The intention of such an environment encourages learner self-directedness, enhances self-esteem, promotes life-long learning and fosters critical and creative thinking.

Andragogy as a Learning Theory

Knowles and Andragogy

Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2005) discuss the following six assumptions of andragogy.

Need To Know

Adults are goal orientated and subsequently need to know the rationale behind the learning or how it will benefit them toward meeting their goals for the future.

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Adults have the psychological need to be regarded as autonomous and independent. An adult educator should facilitate the transformation of the learner towards becoming independent and self-directed. As they take responsibility for their own learning, their self-concept will blossom.

Role of Experience

Adults present a reservoir of experiences that needs to be acknowledged as a rich resource and integrated with new learning. A connection between new knowledge and prior experience is paramount.

Readiness to Learn

Adults present as ready to learn when they recognize where the learning will enhance their ability to cope with real-life tasks applicable to their social roles.

Orientation to Learning

Adults need to perceive an immediacy of application. Their learning is most effective when presented in the context of its performance in real-life settings.

Motivation to Learn

Adult learners respond to both internal and external motivators, however, through maturation, the internal motivators become more significant.

Other Theorists

Brookfield (1990), in agreement with Knowles’ foundational work, placed a greater emphasis on collaboration, praxis and critical reflection. He asserted that adults should voluntarily participate, that mutual respect among stakeholders be preserved, that collaboration be fostered, that continuous reflection and refinement be cultivated as an integral part of the activity (praxis); that critical/reflective thinking of individual views be weaved into learning experiences, and that the environment be structured to develop self-directed and empowered learners. Mezirow (1991) focused on the transformation of adult learners as they become critically aware of how their assumptions shape and potentially impede their development as self-directed, autonomous entities. Merriam (1999) highlights the importance of learning as situated, that is, embedded in authenticity, whereby cognitive processes mimicking the real-world application would be invoked.

Implications for Adult Educators

Knowles himself suggested some implications for the classroom climate (Merriam, 1999). He held that the atmosphere should underscore respect, acceptance and support for the adult learner. The relationship between instructor and learner should be altered to nurture a spirit of joint inquiry. Naturally he suggested that the learners be charged with the task of directing or at least participating in planning their own learning. The other theorists would further advocate for a framework for reflection and refinement, either of the learning or of personal tenets.

Adults, then, would consequently thrive in learning opportunities such as:

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Do all adults fit the assumptions? There are individual differences in learners – multiple intelligences, learning styles, developmental stages,metacognitive abilities and emotional intelligence (Knowles et al., 2005).

Do the theories apply to all adults in all situations? Knowles ignored the "sociohistorical context" of learning – including differences in culture and gender (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007, pp.87-88).

Is it a learning theory or a set of principles for “best practices”? Rigorous empirical testing has not occurred to validate the guidelines (Donnan, n.d.)

Is this approach only valid for adults? Knowles himself agreed that the child-adult distinction had blurred and the approaches represent more of a spectrum of methods to choose from rather than a dichotomy (Knowles, 1980).


Bullen, M. (1995, June). Andragogy and University Distance Education. Paper presented to the seventeenth conference of the International Council for Distance Education, Birmingham, UK. Website:

Bolden, Lois. (2008, June 22). Adult learning paper receives TNF Scholarly Writing Award: making a case for Andragogical approaches to Teaching and Mentoring Students The Free Library. (2008). Retrieved February 27, 2011 from learning paper receives TNF Scholarly Writing Award: making a...-a0185655403

Brookfield, S. D. (1986), Understanding and facilitating adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Conner, M. L. (n.d.). Andragogy :: Ageless Learner. Ageless Learner :: Curious for Life!. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Donnan, R. (n.d.). Andragogy (Knowledge + Learning = Performance). Knowledge + Learning = Performance. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Fidishun, D. (n.d.). Andragogy and Technology: Integrating Adult Learning Theory As We Teach With Technology. Middle Tennessee State University. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Frisoli, G. (n.d.). Andragogy vs. Pedagogy. Gabriella Frisoli's Portfolio . Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Harper, S. (n.d.). Andragogy versus Pedagogy. Learning Systems. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Hiemstra, R. (n.d.). MOVING FROM PEDAGOGY TO ANDRAGOGY . Roger Hiemstra's Web Page. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Knowles, M. S. 1980. The modern practice of adult education. New York: Adult Education.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner (6th ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. (Original work published 1973)

Merriam, S. B. (1999). The development of the discipline of adult education in the United States. Andragogy Today: Interdisciplinary Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 2(3), 31–49. Published by: Adult and Continuing Education of Korea.

Merriam, S. B. (2001, Spring). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. The New Update on Adult Learning Theory, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 89, 3–13.

Merriam, S. (2004). The changing landscape of adult learning theory. In J. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith (Eds.), Review of adult learning and literacy: Connecting research, policy, and practice (pp. 199-220). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Reischmann, Jost (2004). Andragogy. History, Meaning, Context, Function. Internet-publication Version Sept. 9, 2004.

St. Clair, R. (n.d.). Andragogy Revisited: Theory for the 21st Century? #trdev « The Happy Curmudgeon. Welcome to the Training and Development Resource Center. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

External Links

An additional extensive reference list

YouTube Video: Andragogy - Janet Finlay

YouTube Video: Hall & Oates - Adult Education

YouTube Video: The Simpsons - No Room In My Brain