Adult Learning

A wise man increaseth in learning.

—Bible, Proverbs 1:5

Education never ends, Watson.

—Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Red Circle, 1911

Definition and Background

Adult learning, or andragogy (from Greek, meaning "adult learning"), refers to the principles and practices involved in how adults acquire and use knowledge, skills, and attitudes. In the United States, andragogy's roots reach back to the mid-1800s, when it was called vocational education and the new industrialism first brought in night schools, continuing education programs, and correspondence courses. The academic theory and discipline of adult learning began in the United States in the 1920s with the works of Eduard Lindeman, and continued in the second half of the century with the works of Malcolm Knowles.


The two chief principles of adult learning are self-direction and relevancy.

  • Self-Direction. Adult instruction should be customized as much as possible to the individual learner, with the trainer acting more as facilitator than teacher. Courses should be self-paced, and the learner's experience should be utilized wherever possible as a resource in the learning.

  • Relevancy. Adult learning should have a real-world focus and be rooted in what educators call "authentic" tasks. Because adults have more life and work experience than youth, they are less inclined to take the teacher's word at face value. Courses need to relate directly to the adult's life situation or to their work. Adults also respond better to problem-based courses than to lectures. Whenever possible, courses should utilize real-life scenarios and students should work on their own projects—geared to their own interests and personal goals. Standardized tests should be supplemented by self-tests (pre- as well as post-), which are more motivating.

Course Design

In sum, adult learning theory stresses the importance of learner-relevance at every point in the learning process. Self-planning beforehand, self-assessment afterwards, and authentic, action-based tasks in between constitute the most powerful learning pathway. In addition to self-directed learning, adult learning stresses the importance, where appropriate, of collaborative learning as well.

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Adult Learning Principles


  • Self-Planning: Pre-tests

  • Self-Evaluation: Post-tests

Course Structure:

  • Authentic tasks

  • Action learning

  • Active participation

  • Experiential environment

  • Problem-centered activities


  • Collaborative climate

  • Self-directed learning

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Lifelong Learning and the Spectrum of Learning

The aim of life is self-development. Most people forget this.

—Oscar Wilde, 1890

In the twenty-first century adult learning has been extended to yet a third learning phase—what the Germans call "gerontagogy," what the French call "the third age," and what Americans call "learning for seniors."

The Spectrum of Learning




Child learning

Adult learning

Senior learning

The concept of the learning spectrum raises the concept of adult learning to part of a larger whole—namely the concept of lifelong learning. Reaching back 2,400 years to ancient Greece, when Socrates taught Plato on the stone steps of the marketplace, lifelong learning is also very much the future of the twenty-first century. And within this spectrum adult learning, which is destined to play a major role, is only just beginning to take advantage of modern learning and performance principles.


Seek knowledge throughout your life, from cradle to grave.

—Mohammed, A.D. 600


Apprenticeship programs in Jamestown Colony, Virginia (ancestor of vocational-technical schools).


The growth of home correspondence schools for adults, the beginnings of adult "distance learning."


First tax-supported public library established, in New Hampshire.


The German Alexander Kapp, in a commentary on Plato's theory of education in The Republic, coins the term Andragogik (adult education).


James Hudson: The History of Adult Education. Republished several times since.


Samuel Smiles: Self-Help. Founds the self-help (self-directed learning) movement for adults, in England. (See Carnegie, 1936.)


First university extension classes taught at Oxford and Cambridge.


Eugen Rosenstock's Andragogik appears in Germany. Although the term had been coined a century earlier, andragogy's main impact wasn't felt in Germany until the need to rebuild its adult workforce following the devastations of World War I.


In the United States, Eduard Lindeman publishes The Meaning of Adult Education.


American Association for Adult Education is organized, dedicated to enhancing the field of adult learning. See Web site www.aace.org. Still publishes Adult Learning journal.


Eduard Lindeman and Martha Anderson publish Education Through Experience, a summary of the adult education movement going on in Germany under the Labor Academy throughout the early 1920s.


Edward Thorndike: Adult Learning. The views of a founding behaviorist.


Dale Carnegie publishes How to Win Friends and Influence People. This Depression-era best-seller single-handedly founded the self-directed adult learning movement in the United States. Carnegie's discovery of the power of directed praise, for instance, anticipates not only The One Minute Manager's "one-minute praisings" of the 1980s but also other major motivation theories. His belief in the importance of emotional attitude (the need to "nourish self-esteem") directly anticipates Maslow's category of self-esteem in his hierarchy of needs of the 1950s.


Malcolm Knowles (1913–1997), so-called father of adult education in the United States, publishes his book Informal Adult Education. Building on the work of Lindeman before him, Knowles lays out adult learning principles in a series of books:

  • 1954 Teaching Adults in Informal Courses

  • 1960 Handbook of Adult Education

  • 1969 Higher Adult Education

  • 1970 The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy

  • 1973 The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species

  • 1975 Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers

  • 1977 Adult Development and Learning: A Handbook

  • 1984 Andragogy in Action


Britain's Open University (university without walls) begins operation.


Cyril Houle: The Inquiring Mind. A study of the adult learner.


David Kolb: Experiential Learning.


Ron Zemke: "30 Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning," Training, July 1988.


Ron Zemke: "Adult Learning: What Do We Know for Sure?" Training, June 1995.

See also Distance Learning Learning Style

The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance. A Trainer's Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance: A Trainers Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
ISBN: 0814471781
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 110
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