Learning Principles

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Malcolm Knowles’ theory of adult learning, known as Andragogy, has been hugely influential. Knowles, an American educator, identified six principles of adult learning which are described below.

1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed

Adults are used to being responsible for their own decisions and for their own lives, and need to be treated as capable of self direction. Adults resent and resist situations in which they feel imposed upon by others. Adults need to contribute to how and what they learn.

Some strategies that address the implications of this include:

    • being approachable and encouraging the asking of questions and exploration of concepts
    • actively and carefully listening to any opinions and questions
    • providing regular, constructive and specific feedback
    • reviewing goals and acknowledging goal completion
    • encouraging learners to form action learning groups outside the formal learning environment
    • using a range of different learning activities
    • acknowledging that people learn in different ways. 

2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences

Adults have an existing foundation of knowledge and experience, gained from life and work experience. They like to be given an opportunity to apply it to their new learning experiences.

Some delivery strategies that address the implications of this include:

    • finding out about learners’ past experience assisting learners to draw on this experience when completing a new qualification
    • encouraging learners to identify and acknowledge any existing biases or habits they may have formed through their past experience

3. Adults are goal oriented

Adult students become ready to learn when they feel they need to know or do something in order to cope effectively with their workplace issues or problems.

Some delivery strategies that address the implications of this include:

    • clearly linking the learning to the needs of the learner’s workplace
    • providing real case-studies that illustrate how to apply the learning
    • asking questions that motivate reflection, inquiry and further research. 

4. Adults are relevancy oriented

Adult learners want to know the purpose of what they are learning and the relevance to what they want to achieve.

Some delivery strategies that address the implications of this include:

    • asking learners to do some reflection before and after a learning experience. E.g. their learning expectations prior to the experience, what they learnt after the experience and how they might apply what they learnt in the future or in their workplace
    • providing some choice in activities so that learning is more likely to reflect the participants’ interests
    • making the purpose of the training and learning activities clear and providing links between what they are learning and the workplace.

5. Adults are practical

Adults learn through problem-solving, where they can recognise first-hand how what they are learning applies to life and the work context.

Some delivery strategies that address the implications of this include:

    • being explicit about how what the participant is learning is useful and applicable to their job
    • promoting active participation and providing hands-on experience by allowing learners to try things rather than just observe.

6. Adult learners like to be respected

Respect can be demonstrated to learners by:

    • taking an interest in the learners and their work
    • acknowledging the wealth of experiences that learners bring to the learning experience
    • regarding learners as colleagues who are equal in life experience
    • encouraging expression of ideas, reasoning and feedback at every opportunity.

For further information on Knowles’ work, go to: www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm


Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is another adult learning theory that may be useful to review when designing and delivering learning programs that cater for a range of learner needs. Gardner’s theory expands on the traditional understanding of intelligence, which tended to be limited to measures of verbal and logical-mathematical skill (this definition of intelligence is the basis of IQ style testing). Gardner defines intelligence as the ability to ‘solve a problem or create a product that is valued within one or more cultures1 ’ and identifies eight different types of intelligence. These recognise a larger number of abilities, such as creative thinking, as valuable skills that require intelligence.

Gardner originally named seven types of intelligence:

    • visual/spatial
    • logical/mathematical
    • verbal/linguistic
    • interpersonal
    • intrapersonal
    • kinaesthetic.

Gardner later added an eighth intelligence:

    • naturalistic.

Recognising that learners may have different types of intelligence that influence the way they prefer to learn may help improve learning outcomes. The figure below provides an overview of the original seven intelligences identified in Gardner’s theory and some implications they may have on the way people learn. In some situations, learning programs may be able to be adapted to suit a particular learning style or a broader variety of learning styles.

1 Gardner H, 1999, Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21st century,

Basic Books, New York