Adult Learner Assumptions

In the 1970s Dr. Malcolm Knowles developed his theory of the Five Andragogical Assumptions of the Adult Learner. In it he argued that the best methods of teaching adults, and the methods through which they learn, are fundamentally different than that of children. Essentially, the climate in which adults learn should take the following five assumptions into account:

  1. Self-Concept – as a person matures, he or she moves from dependency to self-directness
  2. Experience – adults draw upon their experiences to aid their learning
  3. Readiness – the learning readiness of adults is closely related to the assumption of new social roles
  4. Orientation –  as a person learns new knowledge, he or she wants to apply it immediately in problem solving
  5. Motivation – as a person matures, he or she receives their motivation to learn from internal factors

Let’s take a moment and analyze how each of these 5 assumptions affect adult learning and the methods through which they are taught.


The key to this assumption is self-directedness.  Adults like to be in control of their education.  Whenever possible, give adults a choice on course selection and method (live, webcast, self-study, etc.)


Adults have a lifetime of lenses that color the ways they interpret new knowledge.  Nowhere does the difference from children stand out more than in this assumption.  This is especially critical to account for when dealing with adults from different countries.  Consider a British citizen and their perspective on the Revolutionary War compared to that of an American adult.  Or consider the perspective a world traveler will have compared to that of a person that never left North Dakota.  Experience is the best (and worst) teacher and will always be drawn upon to analyze new data.


When adults change roles, their motivation, desire, and willingness to learn greatly increases.  People inherently like to be successful and adults know that education can be a key to that success.  Job changes, promotions, and assumption of new roles are excellent times to train adults because their understanding and retention will be higher.


Practical, practical, practical.  Generally adults do not like learning theoretical concepts unless they apply directly to their lives in some fashion.  The best instruction will always move from the theoretical to the practical and help adults bridge the gap to their daily work lives.  A good example of this is safety education.  Generally, adults don’t see the direct application of most safety training and therefor retain very little of the information.  If you can modify the training to show the students how it will immediately impact their lives, engagement and retention will increase dramatically.  One warning: make sure the application is real.  Adults are very quick at spotting ‘fake’ application.  Don’t tell them to be safe because it will make their lives better.  Tell them to be safe by doing X because it will directly affect Y and will change their week in Z ways.


Motivation is really the principle behind the Readiness assumption.  Adults are motivated internally in a much stronger way than any external factor.  Ask a CPA to take an Ethics course because it is required by their State Board and they will complete it begrudgingly.  Ask a CPA to take a new accounting course because they will need this knowledge to understand an upcoming project’s challenges and they will complete it with much more enthusiasm.  In the second case, the adult learner is motivated by a ‘felt-need’ rather than an external factor (i.e. the State Board’s regulations.)

It is not possible to always apply each of these principles to every education requirement or course.  But the more of these assumptions you can meet, the more successful your training will be and the better educated your adult students will become.  The key to all of the assumptions is veracity.  Don’t spin the material to try and fit one of the assumptions; adult learners will see right through it.

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4 Responses to Adult Learner Assumptions

  1. Pingback: Conflict as a Training Initiator « Steven Potratz

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