The Six Principles of Andragogy (Malcolm Knowles)

➡️ Video Lesson
➡️ Study Card
andragogy principles and definition, explained below
➡️ Introduction

Andragogy is the art and science of adult learning. It is a concept developed by Malcolm Knowles in response to the concept of pedagogy, which focuses on methods for teaching children.

Knowles found that pedagogy was insufficient for explaining the unique ways in which adults learn. He argued that, unlike children, adults have more autonomy and greater demand for relevancy in what they are learning than children. We have less time and a more urgent need to use the skills we learn than children.

So, as a result of adults’ unique learning needs, Knowles proposed that we need unique teaching methods. So, he produced andragogy, and proposed six key principles.

➡️ Definition of Andragogy

Definition of Andragogy

The concept of andragogy stretches before Knowles’ influential work in the 1970s. Its emergence is most often traced back to German educator Alexander Kapp who coined the term in 1833.

But it wasn’t until 1926 when Eduard Lindeman proposed a definition of andragogy that got the attention of European scholars:

“I am conceiving adult education in terms of a new process by which the adult learns to become aware of and to evaluate his experience.” (Lindeman, 1926)

Later, starting in the 1970s, American educational research Malcolm Knowles progressed the concept, and it’s his work which is most commonly associated with the concept, partly thanks to his easily accessible presentation of ‘six principles’ of adult learning.

The six principles that Knowles proposed are: the need to know, self-concept, the role of experience, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation. Let’s dive into each one.

The Six Principles of Andragogy

1. Self-Concept

Self-concept refers to the evolving perception of oneself as a learner. Our self-perception as a learner shifts as we transition from youth into adulthood.

For example, adults, unlike children, tend to identify themselves as being responsible for their own decisions, including the decision to learn (Knowles, 1990).

One part of an adult’s self-concept as a learner is that they tend to want to engage in self-directed learning.

So, we might expect an adult learner to want to guide their learning journey autonomously (Knowles, 1984). So, adult learners, according to Knowles, prefer self-directed learning environments.

In real-world settings, the self-concept principle often guides educators in fostering a learning environment that encourages autonomy. For instance, an instructor in a community college may design a course that encourages learners to take the helm, steering their course through the content (El-Amin, 2020).

Commentary and Criticism: Multiple studies (Blondy, 2007; Robinson, 1992; Schapiro, 2003; Williams, 2002) as well as my own experience as a university teacher, demonstrate that self-directed learning and autonomy are not universally embraced by adult learners. For example, I’ve been well aware of the tendency of professors to provide limited support under the guise that students should engage in self-directed learning, which in turn, leads students to complaining about “lack of accessibility and responsiveness of the instructor” (Blondy, 2007). Many students – children and adults – like clear instructions and extensive support and resources, especially in courses where they will be graded against standardized assessment criteria.

2. The Role of Experience

From Knowles’ perspective, adults carry with them a wide range of life experiences – far more than children, simply due to the fact they’ve been around for longer (Knowles et al., 2020).

Adults’ experiences don’t merely constitute an adult’s knowledge base; they also significantly affect how an individual perceives, assimilates, and applies new information.

As a result, adult classrooms need to embrace the experiences that the students bring to the classroom. Strategies can include using seminar discussions to share how our experiences intersect with the learning materials, applying our thoughts to real-life case studies, and integrating a diversity of students’ experiences into a classroom.

This example illuminates how adults tie fresh learning to their accumulated experiences, thus enriching their understanding and application of new knowledge (Lewis & Bryan, 2021).

Commentary and Criticism: This principle does have merit in my estimation. Adults clearly do have more experiences they can bring to bear in a classroom than children, on average. My critique here, however, would be that this principle creates a distinction without a difference between andragogy and pedagogy. When teaching children, we should be integrating their prior knowledge into the classroom – in all lessons. Further, we should not devalue the fact children, too, have much to contribute in the classroom, and I hope that this point by Knowles is not taken by anyone as an assumption that children’s experiences and opinions have any less validity than adults’. As educators, we should value adults’ and children’s perspectives in all instances. Nevertheless, to defend Knowles, specifically in continuing adults education context, educators should be aware that our students are often also practitioners, which opens up a lot of space for exploring the theory-practice nexus.

3. Readiness to Learn

Knowles argues that adults come to learning in a just-in-time manner. They tend to want to learn things when they are relevant to their lives.

Adult learners often demonstrate eagerness to learn when they identify a need in their lives that learning will help satisfy. In other words, we adults are usually goal-oriented and will learn when we see a clear and immediate application for the knowledge we’re pursuing (Knowles, 1984).

Here’s the consequence for the classroom: adults will be much more responsive when they understand the relevance and potential application of what they are learning to their real-life context.

For instance, consider the case of a middle-aged adult learner who decides to take an online course in finance management. This person likely recognizes that understanding finance is critical to managing their personal investments and retirement planning. Their readiness to learn stems from their clear understanding of the applicability and relevance of the learning subject to a current situation in their life (Knowles et al., 2020).

Correspondingly, educators need to provide adult learners with the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. They need to offer an explanation of relevance before delving into the subject matter to foster a readiness to learn (Ozuah, 2016).

Commentary and Criticism: While I find this principle to also be commonsense, we’re also forgetting that many students sign up for educational programs because they don’t know what they need to know. In such instances, adult students are coming into adult education settings seeking guidance and space to explore, not simply answers to specific questions (Blondy, 2007).

4. Orientation to Learning

Adult learners are often problem-oriented rather than subject-oriented when it comes to learning (Knowles, 1990).

As a result, lessons shouldn’t be structured like high school, where students jump from subject to subject. Rather, they should be structured around problem-solving.

Take, for example, a working adult undertaking an evening course in digital marketing to enhance their job performance. The learning focus is not driven by an interest in pure mathematics or communications theory as much as it is by a direct job requirement, which may require the combination of various subject-areas at once to solve a problem, including using math for statistics, A/B testing, a specific theory of marketing and communication, and copywriting (Loeng, 2018).

Consequently, when educating adult learners, it is essential to provide a “real-world” context for learning that combines and blends subject knowledge to address a real-world problem.

Commentary and Criticism: Not to sound like a broken record, but this is another distinction without a difference. Children, too, would benefit from a problem-oriented approach to learning, which is why nations like Denmark have extensively experienced with the problem-based learning model.

5. Motivation to Learn

Knowles argues that adult learning is usually more intrinsic in nature than it is for younger learners. who are more amenable to extrinsic rewards.

Adults are mainly motivated to learn by internal factors such as self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction.

External motivators like promotions, salary increment, or career advancement, while influential, often rank lower in driving motivation, according to Knowles (Knowles, 1990).

An example illustrating this principle is an adult who takes a course in Italian cuisine, not because of a career requirement, but due to a deep personal interest in the culinary arts and a desire for self-improvement (El-Amin, 2020).

Thus, when teaching adults, one needs to design learning environments that cater to these intrinsic motivations and maintain the learners’ interests. Engaging course material that fuels their curiosity and passion, interactive sessions which make them feel involved, and acknowledgment of their achievements could make a significant difference (Knowles et al., 2020).

Commentary and Criticism: The sheer lack of empirical evidence presented by Knowles here needs critique. As Bowlby (2007, p. 127) argues: “Knowles’ andragogical assumptions were not formulated on empirical research, but were developed as a result of experience, observations, and theoretical influences.” This, in and of itself, raises my eyebrows and screams “pop psychology!” Sure, it makes intuitive sense to parents that, as our children grow up, they become less amenable to sweets as rewards. But a few years into elementary school, it’s obvious that our children have their own complex intrinsic desires and interests in the classroom – this concept of intrinsic motivation in the classroom, therefore, is as important in pedagogy as it is in andragogy. Furthermore, doesn’t Knowles’ point about intrinsic curiosity (rather than extrinsic goal orientation) directly contradict his earlier point that adults are problem-centered, especially when the problem they’re in the classroom to learn is an extrinsic problem?

6. The Need to Know

The need to know principle posits that adults need to understand why they should learn something before undertaking the learning process.

This principle is closely tied to the adult learner’s preference for self-direction and autonomy. Adults, unlike young learners, feel a strong need to understand the relevance and importance of what they are being asked to learn (Knowles et al., 2020).

For instance, let’s consider a situation where an adult is asked to attend a machine learning workshop. Their first instinct might be to inquire about why they should invest their time and energy learning this specific area. If the benefits and applicabilities of machine learning to their professional line or personal interests are not clear, they may feel less inclined to participate.

So, in designing educational programs for adults, it’s crucial that the instructional design includes an explanation of why the material is important. Providing a clear relevance bridge between the content and the daily routines of the learners could not only stimulate the interest of learners but also strengthens their motivation to learn (Loeng, 2018).

Commentary and Criticism: One of the most common complaints we have when reflecting on our childhood education is that we were taught irrelevant things (think: Pythagorus’ theorum) but not things we’ll actually need, like how to do our taxes. How many millions of children have been turned-off by education because it’s irrelevant to their lives? So, ned to know is not an issue that is exclusively connected to adult education. Again, we’re implicitly undervaluing children’s experiences and agency.

Andragogy vs Pedagogy

I have a whole article about andragogy vs pedagogy, which I encourage you to read to go into more depth. But, I thought it relevant to also present a brief table comparison here, which can help you more deeply conceptualize what’s unique about Knowles’ concept of andragogy:

DefinitionThe art and science of teaching children.The art and science of helping adults learn.
Learner’s RoleDependent on the teacher.Self-directed.
Motivation to LearnOften external (grades, parental pressure).Often internal (personal or professional growth).
Experience of LearnerLimited; used as a starting point for lessons.Rich and varied; used as a resource in learning.
Readiness to LearnBased on age and curriculum level.Based on life needs or interest.
Orientation to LearningSubject-centered; follows a curriculum.Problem-centered; seeks solutions to real-life challenges.
Teacher’s RoleAuthority figure; controls the learning process.Facilitator or guide; supports the learning process.
EvaluationPrimarily by teacher; formal assessments.Self-evaluation often emphasized; may also include formal assessments.


I’ll be open with you on my opinion here: I think the concept of andragogy is excellent for deep and insightful seminar conversations about the dynamics of learning.

I also think the concept does highlight some key desires we as adults have when we come to lifelong learning.

But, to take my teacher hat off for a moment and put my scholar hat on, I’ve got to admit – the concept feels a bit like pop psychology.

➡️ References (13 Sources)
  1. Blondy, L. C. (2007). Evaluation and application of andragogical assumptions to the adult online learning environment. Journal of interactive online learning, 6(2), 116-130.
  2. El-Amin, A. (2020). Andragogy: A Theory in Practice in Higher Education. Journal of Research in Higher Education, 4(2), 54–69.
  3. Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., Swanson, R. A., Swanson, R., & Robinson, P. A. (2020). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. New York: Taylor & Francis.
  4. Knowles, M.S. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Knowles, M.S. (1990). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, 4th ed. Houston: Gulf Publishing Co.
  6. Lewis, N., & Bryan, V. (2021). Andragogy and teaching techniques to enhance adult learners’ experience. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice11(11), 31-40.
  7. Lindeman, E.C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education. New York: New Republic.
  8. Loeng, S. (2018). Various ways of understanding the concept of andragogy. Cogent Education5(1), 1496643. Doi:
  9. Machynska, N., & Boiko, H. (2020). Andragogy–The science of adult education: Theoretical aspects. Journal of Innovation in Psychology, Education and Didactics24(1), 25-34.
  10. Ozuah, P. O. (2016). First, there was pedagogy and then came andragogy. Einstein journal of Biology and Medicine21(2), 83-87.
  11. Robinson, R. (1992). Andragogy applied to the open college learner. Research in Distance Education. 4(1), 10-13.
  12. Schapiro, S. A. (2003). From andragogy to collaborative critical pedagogy. Learning for academic, personal, and social empowerment in a distance-learning ph.d. program. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(2), 150-166.
  13. Williams, S. W. (2002). Instructional design factors and the effectiveness of web-based training/instruction. In R. M Cervero, B. C. Courtenay, and C. H. Monaghan., The Cyril O. Houle scholars in adult and continuing education program global research perspectives.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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