What are the six adult learning principles?

What’s the best way of designing a learning activity for adults? Whether it be a workshop, an online forum or even a podcast? Surely there are some principles we could follow? 

As an enabler of change you may have heard about the six adult learning principles and wondered what they were. In today’s episode we’re going to explore these principles. For those of you new to extension, and even those who’ve been around a while, it’s good to be clear on the fundamentals of what we do and how we do it, especially when it comes to facilitating change!

Any background to adult learning starts with the name Malcolm Knowles. In the 1950s he was the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association in the USA and began work on his PhD focusing on the adult education movement. In 1959 Knowles moved to the University of Boston taking a position as an associate professor of adult education. It was during his time here that he wrote the textbooks on adult education, framing up the idea of adult learning and coming up with six principles that underpin this.  

Knowles saw that adults learned differently from children – something that seems obvious now – but he was able to articulate this difference with the concept of andragogy. Andragogy comes from the Greek. Andra- meaning man, and agogos meaning leader of. So andragogy means ‘leading man’. You may have heard of the term pedagogy in relation to education. Pedagogy is ‘leading children’, and many educational principles are based on children’s learning. 

Note that Knowles didn’t come up with the term andragogy. It was first used by a German educator, Alexander Knapp, in the 1800s. Knowles just made it popular!

All this to say that andragogy, the art and science of helping adults learn, has six principles. 

The first principle is the need to know. This is because the willingness of adults to learn is connected to the tasks they are wanting to learn more about. In other words, before the end of March 2020, you probably didn’t need to know much about facilitating online. However, with Covid-19 and the need to work at home, your need to learn about the online environment just became imperative! 

The second principle is self-concept. As we grow and mature we become less dependent on our parents and we become self-directed (or at least we should!). Our learning is the same; we can make our own decisions about what we focus on and learn.

The third principle is experience, or really prior experience because as adults we aren’t a blank canvas. We bring to our learning our experiences of work, of learning, of family, of many things that make up what we have done and who we are. Applying this principle means that we should find out what our learners already know before launching in to tell them what we think they should know. We sometimes refer to this as ‘Topping up’, rather than ‘Tipping in’. We can do this as easily as asking people at the beginning of a session to share some of their existing knowledge.

The fourth principle is readiness to learn. As adults we are ready to learn when we need to do something in real-life. Our willingness and attention for learning will depend on whether we need it for the task at hand! So as enablers of change, signalling the benefits of what we are about to go through can help people realise the material is going to be useful for them. 

The fifth principle is orientation to learning. As an adult, rather than the learning being relevant later as it is for school children, learning shifts to being goal orientated. In other words, it is problem centred. This is closely related to readiness to learn and means that adults need to know what the outcomes of the learning will be. So when we’re designing our learning activities, we need to make the outcomes explicit. 

The sixth and final principle is motivation. Adults are internally motivated to learn rather than externally (although some external drivers can be important). This is recognising we cannot make adults learn, but we can help them to determine what they want to achieve from their learning.

So in order to design learning activities for adults, it’s important to apply these six principles. Adults choose what and when they want to learn, so we need to respect this and draw on their experiences when it comes to planning extension projects and designing events.

If you would like to read more, there are a couple books written by Knowles, there’s a nice summary in a blog post by Donald Clark and a good article from the Journal of Extension. Links to these are provided below.

So you have read our thoughts about adult learning principles. Now we would like to hear from you! We don’t want this just to be a one-way conversation so join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. Add a comment below this post on the website and share your experiences with us.

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change episode. Remember to tell your friends if you’ve liked what you heard, so we can get more people into the conversation about enabling change.


Clark, D. (2020). Knowles (1913 – 1997) – Adult learning… andragogy… lifelong learning. Available online

Knowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. In, Education for Adults: Volume 1 Adult Learning and Education. Editor, Malcolm Tight. Cambridge Book Company. Available online.  

Knowles, M. S., Elwood F. Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson (2014). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Routledge.

Ota, C., DiCarlo, C. F., Burts, D. C., Laird, R., Gioe, C. (2006). Training and the Needs of Adult Learners. Journal of Extension, 44(6): 6TOT5. Available online.

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Adrian Englefield
Adrian Englefield
1 year ago

Hello John and Denise Interesting discussion. I have reflected on my masters study (will finish this year) and how different the experience and motivation is compared to undergraduate study 15 years ago (and minus three children!!!). Prior experience is huge – applying my life and work skills to training has allowed the learning to be instantly applied, as where the undergrad was for future application. Motivation wise, I enjoy self-guided learning and determining what I want to achieve. Over time circumstances will change and I’m sure the training can be re-framed. Can you recommend any resources looking at changes in… Read more »

Graham Harris
Graham Harris
1 year ago

Thanks again John and Denise – always good to reflect once more on the adult learning principles. A key one for me is that related to the existing knowledge that adults have. It is really important to understand the existing knowledge and skills that learners have and to acknowledge this.

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
1 year ago
Reply to  Graham Harris

Absolutely Graham! It’s the topping up not tipping in approach that is vital here.

David Jago
1 year ago

Thanks for this folks. Great summary!

I remember going through this with groups of participants who were in Australia, funded by AusAid. They had just been through 4-6 weeks of content and networking. My task was to help them put together a learning transfer and action plan.

Most of them had grown up in a very didactic education system. Their initial thinking was more of the same. The adult education stuff, combined with project/action planning, was a real eye-opener for them.

In turn, they educated me in the realities of training and implementation in their home countries. Similarly eye-opening!

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
1 year ago
Reply to  David Jago

Thanks David! And thanks for sharing your experience. I love the reciprocal learning!

Henry Tarka Kovoma
Henry Tarka Kovoma
5 months ago

I’m really impressed and I appreciate it most since you make it easier to understand the principles and it is so important.