Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy)

Malcolm Knowles’ learner-centred theory of andragogy is based on two main points, namely the preference adults have for experiential learning and the motivation that underpins their learning process.

It turns instructors into facilitators by shifting the approach from “educating people” to “helping them learn” (Knowles 1950).

Self-direction and accountability are key concepts of this process. Knowles says that learners should be involved in designing the programme (Clardy 2005), taking into account their individual needs and experience, but Verlanger (in Clardy 2005) underscores this as a weak point in Knowles’ theory, claiming that it can rarely be implemented in an organisational setting. However, it is not generally the case, as organisation’s involve staff in the ‘needs analysis’, and often offer learning interventions structured to suit preferences stated by staff.

Staff motivation could be an issue as a result of a top-down decision made by Management. Nevertheless, the problem can be overcome by developing an organisational culture that favours employee development, well-being and cooperation, and by underscoring the necessity to make a common effort that benefits both employer and employees. The economic impact of the pandemic on organisations cascades down to the people, creating an urgency to be faced together to define and implement win-win solutions.

Referring to Knowles’ theory, a motivating reward that benefits participants could be the gratification derived from pride in using personal skills to ensure efficient service at such a challenging time. Indeed, establishing a competitive advantage versus other organisations by providing added value through excellent service and quality could be a winning solution to face the crisis.

Cochran and Brown (2016) report that cooperating with colleagues and sharing the skills and know-how acquired strengthens the experiential aspect and reinforces learning. This can be achieved by inviting teams to regularly share updates, and discuss their experience, state any difficulties observed either in applying procedures or in client acceptance of procedures, and by requesting them to provide suggestions for improvements. This would actively involve them in the process, thus engaging them and maintaining high motivation levels in the long-term (Cochran and Brown 2016).

SELF DIRECTIONEmpowers a person to identify a learning need, explore available resources, plan a learning path based on awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses and, finally, evaluate the outcome and the process to implement improvements for the next learning opportunity.
The Manager or Coach can be a facilitator in this process. Involve the person in the planning process.
ACCOUNTABILITYAccountability enhances motivation and self-confidence. The combination of these feelings and emotional aspects of the learning experience with the rational learning process improves long-term memory of the subject matter.
Knowing why they should learn a skillKnowing the reason for acquiring a skill, and agreeing with the final goal awakens a sense of purpose, thus achieving a responsive and proactive attitude in the person. Link the ‘why’ with ‘how’ the person will improve performance and results.
A hands-on approach focused on practical experienceThe practical experience of defining a plan or using a device, and of discussing ideas with others converges both cognitive and sensory learning skills for long-lasting results. It encourages a person to draw on personal know-how, thus raising awareness of personal potential.
A problem-solving approachCase studies, role playing, simulations, error analysis and self-evaluation actively involve the person and awaken interest. A challenge stimulates the adrenaline flow to achieve the goal.
Awareness of the skill’s relevance for personal life and/or the jobKnowing how the skills acquired can improve personal life and/or the job strengthens both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, encouraging the person to bring his/her best self to the task.

Key Concepts. Summary by The Empathic Listener


  • KNOWLES, M. S. (1950) Informal Adult Education, New York: Association Press. Guide for educators based on the writer’s experience as a programme organizer in the YMCA.
  • COCHRAN, C. and BROWN, S., 2016. Andragogy and the adult learner. In: K.A. FLORES et al., Supporting the success of adult and online students: proven practices in higher education. Seattle: CreateSpace. pp. 73-84.

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