What is Andragogy: The Adult Learning Theory?

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As student populations and needs continue to evolve, institutions are shifting to a consumer-based approach, prioritizing enriched academic opportunities and their overall value. These learning opportunities are often substantiated by research-based learning theories and methodologies. Even with advancing technology and constant evolution, institutions still value learning theory as a prominent educational pillar, adding a foundation to their instructional practices. 

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at andragogy, the adult learning theory, exploring how institutions can apply its principles and best practices. In addition, we’ll explore how to enhance adult instructional practice with a learning management system.

What is Andragogy?

With so many academic buzzwords and theories, the term Androgogy often goes overlooked, although its practices are widely used. In its most official definition, andragogy is the scientific understanding and practice of adult learning and education. The term was popularized by American educator Malcolm Knowles. Understanding the term is synonymous with pedagogy, Knowles wanted to show the distinction between the two, highlighting andragogy as the appropriate term for adult learning.

Although andragogy benefits all higher education populations, adult learners often refer to a mature demographic of students. To support this population, institutions are incorporating adult learning theory into their instructional practices. But how does this implementation benefit the learner? Here are six ways adult learners benefit from andragogy:

  • Self-Actualization: Learners develop a mature understanding of themselves as individuals and students. 
  • Interpersonal Relationships: Learners facilitate meaningful relationships with both peers and educators. 
  • Perspective: Learners develop a fluid and dynamic attitude toward their studies.
  • Awareness: Learners are equipped with a deeper understanding of the subject material, allowing thorough research and problem-solving.  
  • Empathy: Learners gain a philosophical perspective, developing an understanding of the human experience, leading to empathetic workers.
  • Social Responsibility: Learners understand their ability to make change and make a professional impact.  

Each learner can benefit from a well-rounded academic experience, especially one rooted in research-based andragogy. However, to best teach adult learners, educators and institutions need to know what drives them. Read on to learn about Knowles's five drivers for adult learning. 

The Knowles's Five Drivers of Adult Learning

What drives and motivates mature higher ed students to learn? As Malcolm Knowles continued to study adult learning theory, he identified five drivers, also known as assumptions for adult learning. Here is a brief breakdown of each assumption:

Self-Concept: Students seek education to provide a path for themselves; this path typically aligns with their self-perception and what they would like to contribute academically and professionally. Students choose learning pathways that best fit their goals and preferred learning journey. Self-concept is important as adult learners make academic decisions that can impact their careers later on.

Gaining Experience: Students understand that experience is highly valued and integral to their success. Experience prepares the learner for additional academic opportunities and career development. With the steadily evolving workforce and recent skills gap, higher education emphasizes skills-based learning and experiences to attract students. Learn more about supporting adult learners with skills-based academia.

Readiness & Relevance: Students want to be prepared and qualified for future opportunities. It is also essential for them to access learning resources relevant to their desired careers. To align student goals with course offerings, institutions are developing program-specific pathways to support future employability. See how FCGU developed a badging program to facilitate career readiness.

Orientation: Students must learn beyond the subject material, gaining valuable problem-solving and analytical skills. According to the 2023 Workplace Learning
analytic skills are amongst the top five fastest-growing skills. While students are still receiving their education, priority should be placed on developing a deeper understanding of learning material.

Motivation: Although the older theory model focuses inclusively on intrinsic motivation, modern studies reveal a need for both motivators. Studies show that higher education students and professionals are extrinsically motivated and benefit from more tangible forms of achievement, such as a digital badge. 

Identifying what motivates students helps institutions provide the necessary programs and opportunities that can add value to the student's learning journey. A great example of this is the recent push for online education, specifically remote learning, to reach students living in education deserts. To further elaborate on what adult learners need, Knowles proposed four principles of adult learning.

The Four Principles of Andragogy

The image of what an average college student looks like is beginning to fade. Adult learners comprise a unique but growing population in higher education and may require accommodations to ensure their success. Knowles identified leading principles responsible for academic success in adult learners. Let’s review the four key principles of Andragogy in modernized terminology.

Personalized Learning Experiences: Adult learners benefit from tailoring their learning experiences. With their unique needs and goals, learners can manage their personal learning pathways to suit them best. This active role in their education fosters engagement, leading to academic achievement. 

Competency-Based Education: With competency-based education, students develop mastery in specific skill sets. Adult learners often have prior experience and are looking to upskill to improve in a previous area of work or reskill for new career trajectories. Competency-based learning helps adult learners remain competitive while learning at their own pace.

Flexible Learning: Flexible learning opportunities provide educational access to adult learners juggling prior commitments and responsibilities. Many institutions offer courses through multiple modalities such as Hyflex learning, giving students a choice in how they learn. Adult learners benefit from these different learning modalities, choosing the best for them. As online learning evolved through the years, more and more adult learners are taking online courses outside of their everyday obligations.  

Apprenticeship & Mentorship: Knowles emphasized the importance of hands-on experience and guided learning in the adult learning experience. Apprenticeships and mentorships allow students to learn through action while getting support. As students learn from their instructors and mentors, they discover new complex concepts and overcome academic challenges.     

These four principles ensure adult learners have access to educational opportunities designed to maximize the likelihood of success. For more information, have a glance at Knowles's original principles of androgogy.

Putting Andragogy in Practice With an LMS

An LMS plays a pivotal role in enhancing adult learning, providing equitable access to education, and empowering mature populations to continue learning. A learning management system like Canvas LMS supports connections between instructors, mentors, and other peers. Adult learners can monitor their progress, submit assignments, communicate with educators, and access resources and learning materials, ensuring they remain on their learning pathways. Additional Canvas product family tools such as Canvas Catalog and Canvas Credentials ensure adult learners find and access continuing education and skills-based programs.

To learn more about the latest higher education methodologies and how to strengthen the adult learning experience, take a look at our Guide to Strengthening the Student Experience


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