Question 1 & 2

What are the primary criticisms of andragogy and where do you stand on the issue(s)?

Summarize the six key assumptions about adult learners as described by Malcolm Knowles and discuss their implications for teaching adult learners online.


Andragogy, as defined by Malcolm Knowles, is the art and science of helping adults learn. This contrast with pedagogy which Knowles defined as the art and science of teaching children.  For Knowles, this was a fundamental distinction between pedagogy and andragogy.

Knowles developed four (4) principles and six (6) key assumptions about andragogy.

Four (4) Principles of Andragogy

Knowles suggested four (4) principles that are applicable to andragogy.

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Six (6) Key Assumptions about Adult Learners

Knowles’ posited six (6) assumptions about adult learners to support his theory of andragogy. These were:

Self-concept: adults tend to resist situations in which they feel that others are imposing their wills on them.

Experience: adults tend to come into adult education with a vast and rich amount of prior experience compared to that of children.

Readiness to learn: adults’ readiness to learn is oriented to the development task of his/her social roles given the topic is relevant.

Orientation to learn: adults are motivated to the extent in which they perceive that the knowledge in which they are acquiring will help them perform a task or solve a problem in real life.

Motivation to learn: Adults are mostly driven by internal motivation and the desire for self-esteem and goal attainment.

The need to know: adults need to know the reason for learning something.

Implications for Teaching Adults Online

The assumptions made by Knowles about adult learners may be used as an instructional design guide for online courses.

The online community, eLearning Industry, suggests that online courses can be designed to “create learning experiences that offer minimum instruction and maximum autonomy” which is consistent with the self-concept assumption. A major aspect of designing adult online courses is by having an online support system to offer guidance and help, while still giving the online tools and resources they need to learn on their own terms. Adult learners acquire new information and build upon existing knowledge much more effectively if they are encouraged to explore a topic on their own.

Assumption 2 of Knowles assumption can be met in an online course by including a wide range of instructional design models and theories to appeal to varied experience levels and backgrounds. Since adult learners are more mature, it is presumed that they have had more time to cultivate life experience and typically have a wider knowledge base.

That means that you’ll have to take into account that your adult learning audience is going to be more diverse, especially in terms of backgrounds, experience levels, and skill sets. While one adult learner may be well versed on how to search for resources online, another may have very little experience using the Internet.

Applying Assumption 3 to the online environment can be as simple as including Web 2.0 tools to better facilitate collaboration for any deliverable in a course. Since the assumption presumes there is a readiness to learn, in an online environment adults may challenge themselves with learning Web 2.0 tools which may be new to them once it promotes learning community.

Assumption 4 can be applied to online learning by “emphasizing how the subject matter is going to solve problems that an adult learner regularly encounters.” In an online environment, activities should be given that allows adults to solve problems they encounter on a regular basis and should not be of abstract value.

Assumption 5 and 6 are interrelated when the online environment is considered. Since adults are expected to be motivated, there should provide a valid reason why each online module, online activity or assessment is included. This should also be communicated to adults.

Criticisms of Andragogy

Merriam et al. (2007) criticizes Knowles theory because it lacked the fundamental characteristics of a science since it could not be measured. In fact, researcher Pratt (1993) concluded that “they could not say with any confidence that andragogy has been tested and found to be the basis for a theory of adult learning or a unifying concept for adult education.”

Secondly, Rachel (2002) noted that there was an absence of a clear meaning of what constituted andragogical practice given there are so many different instructional methodologies/techniques.

Another criticism of Andragogy is based on his characteristic assumptions of adult learners. Not all adults will exhibit the assumptions that Knowles listed. Some adults will be self-directed learners and some will be highly dependent on the teacher. This also occurs in children so there isn’t any distinct difference between adults and children based on Knowles’ assumptions.

My Critique

In my opinion, the assumptions of Andragogy as outlined by Knowles should be more appropriately defined as a set of guidelines that should be followed when designing instruction. Regardless of the age of the learner, these guidelines should be applied.

Therefore, I do not agree that andragogy is a different from pedagogy.  Effective instruction does not have delineations based on age, and should take into consideration the needs of the learners which is provided in the goals and objectives of any well-developed instructional unit.


Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


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