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What is Adult Learning Theory? Andragogy Explained

Teaching adults is hard. Not because adults are hard to teach, but because the process of approaching the instruction of an adult requires unlearning a lot of what you think you know about teaching as a practice.

The teacher may struggle with a few thoughts like, ‘how can we get them to care?’ and ‘what if they’re disinterested with the content?’

The answer to these questions lie in Andragogy, a term coined in the early 1800’s as a means of better understanding how adults think. In the following blog, you’ll find a general survey of Andragogy as an idea, stopping as necessary to help educate through some of the divergent thoughts and philosophies of adult learning, and, shedding light on how you can achieve better learning in the adults you’re teaching.

What is Andragogy?

Andragogy, which means man-leading in Greek, is the study of adult learning.

Andragogy, which means man-leading in Greek, is the study of adult learning. Its conception as a term comes from Alexander Kapp, a German educator, who first coined the term in 1833 as a means of developing learning strategies focused on adults.

Kapp himself, was a high school educator, and his goal in inventing Andragogy was to posit learning as a lifelong necessity and goal, as opposed to a short-term foundation for children. In essence, learning isn’t something you grow out of, and it shouldn’t be perceived as a child-like pursuit.

Andragogy fell into relative disuse in the following decades. However, in 1925 the idea was resurrected by fellow German Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy as a means of regenerating Germany post World War I.

The contents and intrinsic ideas of Andragogy are born from the desire to take men caught up in their past, and help them move forward. There is specific care in Andragogy to delve into the crucible of necessity while remembering that learning as an adult is nothing if it’s not practical, historical, and necessary.

As John A. Henschke puts it in his work, Beginning of the History and Philosophy of Andragogy 1833-2000, “Andragogy is not merely ‘better’ as an educational method, [but] for this purpose, it is a necessity.”

“Andragogy is not merely ‘better’ as an educational method, [but] for this purpose, it is a necessity.”

How to Get Started with Adult Learning

To start, it’s important that you realize adult learners are entirely different from the child learner. Their motivations, assumptions, desires, and intrigues arise from a completely different section of the brain. As such, you cannot approach the adult learner as if you know best what they need to believe, feel, or think.

Paying close attention to the 8 Assumptions of Adult Learners below you will begin to better understand the importance of knowing your learner. Once you do, teaching the average adult is easily accomplished.

8 Assumptions of Adult Learners

1. Adults need to be aware of why they need to learn the subject matter

If you approach your first engagement with your adult learners having already defined why your subject matter is valuable for them, you’ve crossed a major hurdle. Start here, and branch out from this value.

Make it clear at each new step where the value lies in their effort and attention, and you will have interested adult learners. More perceived value means more interest, which will always mean more teaching objectives accomplished.

2. Adults need to learn experientially

Do not approach the adult learner as a stationary object. Their childhoods were filled with “Sit right there and look right here.” The engaged adult is fed up with that mentality.

They’ve become very familiar with static, immobile learning, and they know that it’s not how they learn best. Ask anyone you know how much they YouTube their DIY projects, and it will begin to make more sense that adults want to cut out the nonsense and get down to business.

The more they can use their hands to accomplish the learning objective, the better.

3. Adults approach learning as a form of problem-solving

Similar to the second assumption, adults do not like learning for learning's sake.

However, if you can transition the directionality of your curriculum, rooting it in real problems and circumstances your student may encounter, the adult response is to care more.

Achieve more caring for the subject by integrating problem solving, and you’ll be much more successful in instructing.

4. Adults learn best when the thing learned yields immediate value

As a rule, adults don’t want to spend copious amounts of time learning a new skill/fact/idea if it doesn’t immediately merit value to their career/personal practices.

Find ways to show your adult learners their ROI for their time and attention, and you’ll have adults that care more about the material. Look for ways to prove perceived immediate value.

5. Adults do not all learn the same. Know and understand a variety of Adult Learning Theory to maximize teaching efficiency

It shouldn’t be surprising that no one person is the same. This means that certain strategies and objectives may need to be played with in order to accomplish teaching goals. Don’t consider your education as a step-by-step building process.

Instead, collaborate and invent with your adult learners in order to succeed in your teaching objectives. Find ways to integrate their ideas of what they need to know out of the content you want to teach.

The right way is the way that works, and discovering this way is a matter of investigation.

6. Adults move from dependency to self-directedness as they mature and take ownership of their own learning

As if adults could get any more complicated—they suddenly do. There is a continuum that adults exist on in the process of learning your curriculum. As they learn, they begin to have the need to be self-directed.

Think, teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life. Just remember that an adult’s interest in a subject is always congruent to how much responsibility they have over the subject.

An adult doesn’t google ‘how to change a baby’s diaper’ until it becomes specifically valuable and necessary to know, and a part of their personal responsibility.

7. Adults draw on their own accumulated reservoir of life experiences to aid learning

Children are often approached with curriculum as if their brains are completely empty, open jars waiting to be filled with beautiful and productive information.

This may be an okay approach to teaching a child their ABC’s, but you must remember that the adult is not like the child. Their minds are full to the brim with knowledge, ideas, and information. From a brain science perspective, your educational goals should be tasked with connecting your curriculum with the ideas and knowledge they already have.

How is this done well? Through storytelling. Ask questions of times when people have witnessed certain things, and then take their stories and introduce curriculum within them.

8. Adults are motivated to learn by internal, rather than external, factors

It cannot be said enough that the adult is not like the child. Often times our minds go immediately to our own learning experiences growing up when designing curriculum for the adult learner.

This can be dangerous because the adult learner is not motivated the same ways as a child, and as a result we often design instruction with the wrong goals in mind. Children have extrinsic/external goals.

They want to make good grades to make their parents happy, to move to the next grade, to be perceived as above average. All things considered, their motivations exist outside. Adults, however, are primarily motivated by intrinsic/internal motivations.

Embarrassment, fear, and excitement rule the adult mind, and at the center of it all is their perception of self. An adult doesn’t take a class for the admiration of their peers. They do it to better their career, advance their ability to be successful, and ultimately, to perceive themselves in a better light.

10 Principles and Tips to Achieve Adult Learning

Understanding adult learning theory is only half the puzzle. Knowing how to convert theory to practice is when the magic happens. So just how do you go about doing that? Follow our 10 tips below:

1. Respect them.

2. Use humor.

3. Facilitate exploration, not stagnate walkthroughs.

4. Challenge through games.

5. Break big ideas down into smaller pieces - aka chunking.

6. Tell stories and add suspense.

7. Make it visually-compelling.

8. Use their lives as examples.

9. Never assume your information is important. Instead, find ways to make it important to them by connecting it with what they already know.

10. Let learning occur through failure.

7 Differences between Andragogy and Pedagogy

Remember early when I shared the definition of Andragogy and how it’s a means to focus on adult learning strategies? Now let’s take a quick look at Pedagogy - what it is and how it differs from Andragogy.

Pedagogy is by definition the theory and practice of teaching. As we traditionally understand it, it is learning that is taught from the teacher’s perspective.

Below is a quick look at the difference between the two:

pedagogy v. andragogy

How to Motivate Adult Learners

Adult communication is full of people asking others for advice. Whether you’re starting a new job, or welcoming a new baby into your home, adult’s lives are full of questions.

At every step and every new path the adult is eager to learn. Motivating them is only a matter of connecting what makes the adult care about content. Below we will take a look at how you can help in the process of getting an adult learner to become the student you need them to be.

How often do you hear someone say “I get asked by lots of people for advice with X”? It’s a fairly common sentence to overhear, and for a scientific reason. Unless the person is an expert in some area, they won’t likely give out nearly as much advice as they think they do. Why do they perceive themselves in an advisory role so often?

It’s because adults are excessively aware of communication where they are being required to problem solve.

The goal for you as a teacher is to figure out how to cause each of your students to have awareness of content in a way that situates them in the role of power, and where the burden of the problem feels real to them.

6 ways to ensure learner attention

1. Set a cooperative climate for learning, and your adult students will engage.

2. Design specific curriculum based on learner’s specific needs and interests. This real-life problem solving engages similar parts of the brain as creativity.

3. Connected to let the learner have a hand in the process of designing curriculum.

4. Design clear sequential activities to achieve the objective.

5. Continue explaining why something is being learned. Effective adult teachers explain their reasons for teaching specific skills.

6. Adults learn by doing, so effective learning can only take place in the process of the learner performing. Give them something to perform!

What Brings Most Adults to Learning in the First Place?

1. Social relationships - To meet a need for social friendships and business associations.

2. External expectations -To comply with instructions from someone else; to fulfill expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority.

3. Social Welfare - To achieve higher status in a job, secure professional advancement, and perform above competitors.

4. Escape/Stimulation - To relieve boredom, provide a break in routine, and provide contrast to the normative experience.

5. Cognitive interest - To learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind.

4 Primary Barriers to Adult Learning

We explored several reasons as to why adults seek out further learning and ways in which to facilitate learning for adults. Now let’s take a look at what some of the most common barriers to continuous learning is for adults:

1. Lack of time

It should be noted that busyness in 2017 is an attribute. It’s looked at as a value, instead of a problem. Most people, unaware of what their time availability actually is, will say that they don’t have time.

This barrier is often difficult to overcome, but can be if you remember to embed real problem solving in the content being taught.

The higher the perceived value of the information you’re sharing, and the more the adult learners availability opens.

2. Lack of money

While it is true that adult learners have monetary responsibilities, this barrier falls in line pretty evenly with the time barrier.

If the person perceives the value of the content to be worth more than the value they’re being required to pay, you will have an eager student.

Make sure to price your content at the right market value.

3. Lack of interest

If your student is uninterested, you will be tasked with persuading them of the content’s value.

If you are unable to convert disinterest into interest, you will be unlikely to overcome this barrier.

Take the time to show the prospect student examples of how your content has been valuable for others.

4. Problems with childcare/transportation.

This may be the most legitimate of the barriers, and the hardest to overcome. Depending on the adult learner, childcare and transportation are objective issues that must have solutions.

Whether it be bus routes or childcare opportunities, this barrier will always be of primary consideration to the adult learner.

As with the previous barriers, an adult is likely to make a situation work if the content has a high enough perceived value.


Adult learning is certainly no easy task and not to be approached lightly thinking the same methodologies that work for children will work for them. After exploring several assumptions about adult learners and how they learn best, we shared ten tips and principles that help improve the success of adult learners.

Even when armed with foolproof tips for improving adult learning, it’s important to understand the difference traditional learning and adult learning methodologies to create effective and engaging content. We’ll be exploring different methodologies and examples of how to create content for the adult learner throughout the next few posts.

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