Adult Learning Theory

Adult Learning Theory


What It Is

Adult learning theory, sometimes called andragogy, refers to the idea that teaching adult learners requires a different set of pedagogical skills than those used to teach younger students. The guidance in this resource applies to learners who are 18 or older and have participated in at least some professional, career, or internship experiences in addition to traditional classroom learning experiences.


Why It Matters

Developed by Malcolm Knowles, the concept of andragogy is described as “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1978). It is based on several assumptions of what distinguishes adult learners from younger learners. Adults (a) are self-directed and can take charge of their own learning; (b) have a variety of life experiences that can act as a foundation for learning; and (c) are eager to approach problem-centered material and quickly apply new learning. Some traditional K-12 pedagogical practices (rather than adult learning practices) may cause adult learners to disengage, learn less, or retain what they’ve learned for shorter times.


Apply It

When working with adult learners, keep these strategies in mind: 

  1. Connect to learners’ life experiences. Build intentional connections to the workplace experiences learners might have had. 
  2. Tell learners where to file new information. After learners leave traditional K-12 settings, they begin to accumulate a wealth of extracurricular knowledge beyond the core subject areas. Help them understand where your course content fits in with what they already know so they can build strong connections to previous learning.
  3. Provide opportunities for self-direction. Give learners a chance to choose their learning pathway. Replicate workplace challenges by leaving some learning tasks open-ended, without a single “right” answer.
  4. Respect learners’ professionalism. Remember that adult learners have had adult life experiences and will benefit when those experiences continue in the classroom. For example, adult learners are likely more comfortable with free-flowing classroom discussions, rather than being asked to raise a hand to speak. Agreeing to classroom norms can help structure these discussions.
  5. Make learning practical, goal-oriented, and immediately applicable. Whenever possible, allow learners to personalize their learning. Encourage them to adapt assignments to fit problems of practice they have encountered or are likely to encounter in the future. 
  6. Provide time for learners to reflect and collaborate. Bookend topics with time for learners to process and mentally file new learning. This can happen individually, as a written reflection, or in groups of 3-5 students. This reflection can also be a source of formative assessment for instructors, but does not have to be formally graded.
  7. Remind learners of their “why.” Many adult learners self-select learning opportunities, by registering for a conference session or workshop that will enhance their professional learning or by selecting courses from the course catalog that align with their future career goals. Provide regular opportunities for learners to reflect on their personal reasons for choosing this particular learning opportunity.




Knowles, M. (1978). Andragogy: Adult learning theory in perspective. Community College Review, 5(3), 9-20.


Cite This Resource

Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. (2023, January). Adult learning theory [Teaching resource].


Updated 1/2023