Malcolm Knowles Adult Learning Theory | Assumptions & Principles

Malcolm Knowles Adult Learning Theory | Assumptions & Principles

How well does your workplace learn? When we think about learning principles, we often think of the classroom setting or childhood education. Rarely do we consider the principles of adult education in teaching new or practical skills.

Educator Malcolm Knowles introduced the Adult Learning Theory to explain the differences between child and adult education. The theory focuses on the adult learning journey and can be used to optimise formal and informal adult education.

What is the Malcolm Knowles Adult Learning Theory?

Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory refers to his framework that explains adult learning (Andragogy). It is Knowles’ theory that elaborates on how adults learn new concepts and skills, in contrast to pedagogy that focuses on children’s learning. This ‘theory’ was not a singular book, publication, or concept, but rather a progressive development of his ideas over many years.

It is worth noting that Malcolm Knowles did not come up with the term ‘Andragogy’. This was coined by Alexander Kapp in 1833.

Key Publications Shaping Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory

Malcolm Knowles was a prolific writer and spent most of his life concentrated on learning and developing his theories on adult learning. While the two most important books might be considered The Modern Practice of Adult Education and Andragogy in Action, there were other books that helped shape his framework.

Here is a list of the publications that influenced development of his Adult Learning Theory:

  • Informal Adult Education: A Guide for Administrators, Leaders, and Teachers (1950) was published. This work laid the foundation for Knowles’ later focus on adult education.
  • A History of the Adult Education Movement in the USA (1967) which included references to andragogy.
  • The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) was first published. This is the first time that Knowles fully articulated his theory of adult learning. In this book, he introduces the first four assumptions of adult learning. Although some sources incorrectly list this as 1980, the 1980 date refers to a revised edition which expanded on the works and introduced the fifth assumption that we know about today.
  • The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1973) was published, which further elaborated on the characteristics of adult learners.
  • Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975) was published, emphasizing the importance of self-direction in adult learning.
  • Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Education (1984) was published, which applied the principles of andragogy to various adult learning settings.

adult students studying together

The 5 Assumptions of Adult Learners

Knowles established the five assumptions of adult learning. The first four assumptions were introduced in 1970 in his book The Modern Practice of Adult Education as a way to characterise an average adult learner. The fifth assumption (motivation to learn) was added in his 1980 revision of the same book.

1. Self-concept

Self-concept assumes that, as we mature, our learning preferences also grow in time. Adult learners tend to shift from a dependent learning structure to an independent, self-directed learning. Knowles explains the self-concept assumption as how adults take ownership of their learning journeys.

2. Adult Learner Experience

The Adult Learner Experience assumption draws on the knowledge bank that adult learners already have. Compared to children who learn things for the first time, adults typically have past experiences or knowledge that they can utilise in learning new skills or information.

3. Readiness to Learn

As adults, we are self-directed learners and our readiness to learn is directly influenced by our interests. We tend to learn best when the topics presented are aligned with our goals, such as topics that would help boost our careers or accomplish relevant tasks.

4. Orientation to Learning

Orientation to learning is the assumption that, as adult learners, we want to apply the concepts and theories we learn to our everyday lives. Unlike in the classroom setting, we are not content with just memorising information but we tend to prefer learning topics that help us to solve problems in the real world. We move from theoretical concepts to practical applications.

5. Motivation to Learn

Knowles’ last assumption is that adult learners have an internal motivation to learn. In children, the motivation to learn stems from external factors (teachers, parents, schools), while adult’s motivation to learn stems from their interests and goals. We may want to upskill to expand our careers or learn a new hobby because it aligns with our interests.

4 Principles of the Adult Learning Theory

Knowles introduced the 4 principles of andragogy in 1984 through his book Andragogy in Action. He explained the adult learner experience in regards to involvement, experience, relevance and focus. These andragogy principles aim to better understand and develop effective techniques for adult learners.

  1. Involvement – Our involvement in the learning process can encourage a better understanding of course material. Adult learners tend to adopt a self-directed approach to their learning journeys as they take ownership of what, when and how they learn practical skills or new topics.
  2. Experience – Experience is an effective knowledge-builder. We tend to learn best when we integrate professional or personal life into the learning process. By involving past experiences, adult learners can enrich their learning journeys as they draw knowledge from information or situations that they already know.
  3. Relevance – Adult learners learn best when the material has immediate relevance to their professional or personal lives. We are instinctively drawn to learning materials that have an impact on our careers, social lives or interests.
  4. Focus – Teaching methods that rely on memorisation over practical application are not ideal for adult learners as we tend to focus more on problem-solving applications rather than content-oriented memorisation.

adults learning together

3 Real-world Use Cases for the Malcolm Knowles Theory

The adult learning theory explains adult education in a general setting, but we can apply this to real-world scenarios in Vocational Education and Training (VET), Workplace Training, and Upskilling where adults typically learn new skills to further their careers.

Vocational Education and Training (VET)

In VET, adults gain experience in different vocational work that might become their careers in the future. The adult learning theory is most evident in VET teaching methods, where instructors may integrate the assumptions of adult learners with other informational processing theories to improve the way their students learn.

The goal of VET is to produce potential workers who could effectively apply workplace theories in the real world, so instructors may introduce hands-on learning modules and assess their skills through situational tests (orientation to learning).

Workplace Training

Workplace training, on the other hand, aims to improve the performance and compliance of workers in an organisation. We can apply Knowles’ theory in this case by designing optimised training content that would engage learners and give them the best chances of retaining information.

Training managers may utilise tools and software to streamline their content. They may also include hands-on assessments to evaluate whether workers have thoroughly learned the material or if there are any areas of improvement that they need to fix. The adult learning theory also comes in handy when training managers need to ensure that their employees follow industry-specific protocols and standards, such as sanitation protocols in hospitals.

Upskilling Training

Upskilling is when professionals aim to expand their careers by improving the skills they already have or learning new skills that would further develop their work. Malcolm Knowles’ learning theory plays in as most adults who undergo upskilling training are self-directed. They have the drive and motivation to learn as they know it will be beneficial for them in the long run.

With upskilling, learners often refer back to their past experiences or skills to learn new skills. They may choose to personalise their learning paths to ensure that they fully comprehend the material.

Applying the Adult Learning Theory in the Workplace

Applying the adult learning theory in your organisation can have its advantages when done properly. You can refer to the assumptions of adult learners as a guide to building effective workplace training content to improve the competency and performance of your workforce.

Here’s how you can apply the adult learning theory in your workplace:

  • Identify the Need for Training – The first step is to identify why you’re implementing a training course in the first place. You may need to fill in some skill gaps in the workplace or introduce new guidelines that every employee must know. For any reason, it is important to establish relevance when it comes to implementing a training programme.
  • Take a Survey – Involve your employees in the planning process. Because adult learners tend to take on a self-directed approach, they may learn better when you take into account their learning preferences and insights into the course material.
  • Integrate Hands-on and Problem-solving Courses – As we mentioned earlier, adults are more motivated to learn when the course topic can solve problems in the real world. By integrating hands-on learning experiences and problem-solving content, you can motivate your learners to complete the training course.
  • Relate to Past Courses – If your workplace previously held a related course, connect your upcoming training material to past courses so workers can refer back to their experiences.
  • Design Effective Course Material – Use the principles of andragogy to design course material that will be engaging for your learners. Include visual and auditory elements or interactive content.
  • Include Continuous Assessment – Continuous assessments will help provide feedback to your learners as they progress through the course. This will address any learning gaps and lead to improved knowledge transfer.

Critiques Against the Adult Learning Theory

It is important to note that there are some criticisms surrounding the adult learning theory. Malcolm Knowles’ theory relies on the principles of andragogy, where all adult learners are assumed to be self-directed.


However, we can see in some individuals that the motivation for learning is not apparent, while others may not take an interest in learning skills that would enhance their daily lives. At the same time, there are also learners who prefer a more guided or dependent approach to learning, such as adults who prefer the classroom setting. There are many different types of learning styles and putting all adults in the same basket can be detrimental to some.

So, Can We Apply the Learning Theory?

While there may be some criticisms surrounding the learning theory, we can still integrate its principles into our training programmes. The adult learning theory gives us insights into designing effective course content and teaching styles to engage with professional learners.

Other Learning Theories & Models to Consider

Malcolm Knowles Adult Learning Theory is not the only learning theory that has been explored. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of learning, whether it be for adults or children, there are other important ideas and theories to consider. Explore these concepts and how they may be of assistance to you or your organisation:

  1. Cognitive Learning Theory
  2. Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
  3. Conscious Competence Learning Model
  4. Dreyfus’ Model of Skill Acquisition
  5. Path-Goal Theory
  6. Kolb’s Learning Cycle

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