Why Knowledge of Andragogy Can Improve Training

Why Knowledge of Andragogy Can Improve Training

Andragogy is essentially the science of understanding lifelong adult learning. The theory was developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1960s and the term has since come to name the field of adult learning.

Like all theories on learning, your understanding of where they come from and what they cover can help you improve your training and benefit from each theory’s insight into the area of training.

Fundamentally, adult learning is different from child learning, or pedagogy. This article explores the differences between adult education and child education helping you improve your training.


What Is Andragogy

The term andragogy was coined by Alexander Kapp, a German educator in 1833. Andragogy in Greek means “man-leading” which is as opposed to pedagogy, or “child-leading”.

The term however was popularised by Malcolm Knowles when he published his theory (Knowles 1986). Knowles observed that adults learn differently from children and that their approach was fundamentally different. In turn, this meant that a teacher should treat adults differently to improve and maximise learning.

The theory can be described by examining six assumptions as follows.


1. Reason

“Adults need to know the reason for learning a particular subject.”

Before any adult is going to engage in a learning process, he wants to know why he should learn it. In contrast, when you explain something to a child, it is unlikely for the child to question you on why he has to learn it. He would simply listen aiming to absorb as much as he can. If he is not interested, he will pay attention to something else but will not seek to understand why he has to learn the subject. He may ask a lot of questions starting with “why”, but they are mainly directed towards understanding a subject rather than why he should know anything about it.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

When teaching adults in your training courses, always explain clearly why they need to learn a particular skill and how it would benefit them. Failure to do so will lead to lack of participation or outright rejection of the content.

In contrast, when adults know the reason and agree that the topic is important, they will be much more enthusiastic to participate and aim to learn as much as they can in a given time.


2. Experience

“Adults are more experienced than children and this experience forms the foundation of their learning.”

Kids have little experience in comparison with adults. This means they will listen more and are more easily influenced by their teachers. Children are likely to have role models such as parents, teachers or older sibling which they might imitate when learning something new.

In contrast, adults bring their own specific experiences, resources and knowledge. This experience forms their identity and they will need to relate everything they learn to what they already know.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

Adults can be a lot more critical than children. They will examine every new topic and check for consistency with their own belief system and experience. If their ideas are challenged, they are more likely to resist and defend their position.

When teaching adults you must respect these differences of opinions. You cannot force an idea to adults. Instead, you must aim to guide them so they can see for themselves.

This leads to a fundamental need in adult training. Rather than presenting the new knowledge as facts present it as a theory; suggestions that will help them solve a particular problem in their lives. You must involve adults in the process of applying this suggestion to their world rather than aiming to tell them explicitly what they need to do from tomorrow irrespective of their needs, personality, experience, belief system and personal habits.


3. Involvement

“Adults want to be involved in the educational process as well as planning and evaluation of their performance. They feel responsible for any decision made that will affect their education.”

Adults think independently and will decide on their own whether a particular educational method will work for them or not. This is because they are already experienced in learning and know what works for them and what doesn’t. As a result they are more likely to analyse or question your training methodology.

In contrast, children are dependent on rules and will follow their teacher’s instructions. The teacher will have full command of the educational process and learning.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

You cannot apply the same training method to all adults. They need to be involved in the process and your training must allow them to choose whatever method works best for them.

Some people prefer self-study. You will need to supply a workbook, references for books and websites that allow your adult learners to use particular learning style. Some learn better in groups. Assign these people into groups that can accelerate their learning. Others may like to be shown first how something is done or want to be told what to do step by step much like a recipe. Use a demonstration technique to accommodate their learning needs.

In short, you need to adapt your training for your delegates based on their needs which means you need to fully involve them in the process.

For more ideas on training techniques see a comprehensive list of instructional methods here.


4. Applicability

“Adults are more interested to learn about subjects that will have immediate benefits and applicability to their personal or professional life.”

Children follow their teacher’s instructions and are less likely to question the applicability of a given subject. Most subjects are new to them anyway so they would feel naturally curious to learn about all subjects. In addition, children rely on their teacher to increase the difficulty of a task and cover topics beneficial to them in the long term. Of course, this reliance has certain side effects when an education system misses the opportunity to teach children about some really useful topics at the expense of focusing heavily on others (e.g. focusing too much on maths and physics at the expense of arts and humanities). The child has no say in the matter and will simply need to face the consequences as an adult.

In contrast, or in fact because of this experience, adults can be very sensitive about the choice of topics that they are advised to learn. They have no time to waste and will avoid any subject that will not lead to an immediate and positive result in their lives.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

Since adults need to be aware of the applicability of a given topic to their problems, you need to highlight this early and gain their commitment to the training. As a trainer, this is perhaps one of the most critical areas that can make your training a success.

Adults are guided by their own needs to learn and you can help them learn better by applying to this need. You can help them discover the gaps in their skillset and demonstrate that their increased knowledge will lead to an improved quality of life.

For children, the teacher decides on the level of difficulty and to what extent they need to be challenged. In contrast, you must allow adults to set their own difficulty level and follow a plan set by them to move forward.


5. Problem Solving

“Adult learning is mainly problem-centred as opposed to being content-centred.”

Adults learn by solving problems. In fact, they see learning only as an activity that will help them solve problems. If there is no problem to solve there is probably no need to learn.

In contrast, children focus on learning by topic and subject matter. Their lack of experience means that they don’t question whether the new knowledge will have any value in their lives or not.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

Adults should not be totally led by a content-rich program. Sure enough, you can provide an informative lecture or presentation, but these methods will only help to raise awareness of a topic. On their own, they will not be enough to teach. True learning requires problem solving and you need to use a training mythology that is mainly centred on problem solving such as using interactive group exercises, coursework and projects.

You need to engage adults in a way that they can apply the new knowledge to their own world by going through a number of mini-problems. You can design these mini-problems to carefully guide them to learn how to approach a given problem. This problem-solving-learner-centred approach will be vastly superior to one-way teaching methods such as classroom-style lectures.


6. Motivation

“Adults are more strongly driven by internal motivators than external motivators.”

Children’s learning is mainly influence by external factors. They learn because they are afraid of consequences of failure. They learn because they want to compete or because of peer pressure. They may put more effort to learn to gain a short-term reward set by their teachers or parents.

Adults are mainly motivated by internal factors. They are driven by their aspiration which roots back to their specific needs such as self-esteem and self-actualisation.


How to Apply to Adult Training:

Adults like to achieve something and what they achieve must have a meaning to them. Appeal to trainees’ internal motivation to encourage them to learn a new skill.



Remember, we all have a tendency to teach as if we are teaching children. This is simply because that is how we were taught and we learned from a very early age that teaching must be like that. When we grew up and found ourselves in a teaching position, we start to teach others just as we were taught; like teaching children.

If you are training adults, be aware of these six fundamental differences between training adults and teaching children so you can train your delegates using the right methods that lead to long-term results that persist.



Knowles, M. S. (1968). “Andragogy, not pedagogy.” Adult Leadership, 16(10), 350–352, 386.

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