Malcolm Knowles’ Five Assumptions of Learners and Why They Matter

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At Maestro, we’ve spent countless hours thinking about learning and what creates meaningful, memorable learning experiences. From this we’ve developed learning principles, each influenced by theories, studies, and concepts found throughout learning history and in the industry today.

Meet Malcolm Knowles, an educator passionate about adult learners and what makes them unique. Let’s get to know Knowles along with his five assumptions of adult learners, and how to implement them into your next course strategy.

Who was Dr. Malcolm Knowles?

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913–1997) was a prolific American educator well known for popularizing the term andragogy for adult education. In 1935, Knowles began working under Eduard C. Linderman, another educator who was part of the revitalization of andragogy as a concept, and continued his pursuit of mastering the art of teaching adults in both formal and informal settings.

Knowles spent his career theorizing about how older people approach learning in a way that’s unique compared to children, and from this, he developed five assumptions about adult learners.

To better understand Malcolm Knowles’ definition of andragogy, let’s look into these assumptions and why they’re important for anyone creating learning for adults.

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Malcolm Knowles’ theory: Five assumptions of adult learners

1. Self-concept: Adults become more self-directed as they mature

The first of Knowles’ assumptions is this: as adults move throughout life, they become more independent and self-directed. Adult learners want to have ownership over their learning journey. This is why learning experience platforms (LXPs) and the advancement of eLearning has been huge in the learning industry—these tools allow adult learners to take ownership of what they learn and how they learn it.

It can be easy to make assumptions about what learners might need—especially from the position of leadership, which might not be as connected to the day-to-day work of the employees who actually need the training. Instead, consider giving your learners some freedom to make their own choices in their learning journey, whether that’s by allowing them to choose their learning paths or how they receive their information.

2. Learner experience: Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning process

The second assumption Malcolm Knowles made is about the learner experience. Unlike children who are frequently learning things for the first time without previous experience, adult learners bring the richness of past education, jobs, and life events to learning experiences. Basically, don’t assume your learners are beginners without first understanding the knowledge they bring to the table.

Even if the concepts and skills you’re introducing are new, remember that adult learners may have skills and lived experiences that they can reference to enrich their own process of discovery and growth. Finding ways to integrate this with discussion groups and debriefs can be a neat way to help your learners feel like you see the value they bring, too.

3. Readiness to learn: Adults want to learn things that help them accomplish relevant tasks

You might’ve heard that adults care a lot about the “why” behind learning, and that’s where Knowles’ next assumption about “readiness to learn” comes in. Unlike children, who absorb everything they can as they grow up, adult learners are more selective with what information they take in. Common questions you might hear learners ask include, “How will this help me?” or, “What’s really in it for me?”

This is why the planning stage of any eLearning course or training is pivotal: you need to make it clear from the beginning what your learners are taking away from it and why that matters. Develop activities in your courses that mimic real-world job scenarios, include interactive elements, and make sure that what learners walk away with is applicable to their everyday job role experience.

4. Orientation to learning: Adult learners want to solve problems

Similar to readiness to learn, Malcolm Knowles spoke of adult learner orientation, noting that adults move away from subject-based learning, which centers around simply knowing about a concept, towards problem-based learning, which focuses on knowledge that tangibly contributes to problem solving.

Scenario-based learning can be incredible for teaching your adult learners problem-solving skills while avoiding costly mistakes on the job. See how this style of learning helped two of our retail clients level up their talent.

5. Motivation to learn: Adults rely on internal rather than external motivation

Finally, Knowles made an assumption about adult motivation to learn. While children have external sources of motivation to learn—including parents, teachers, or the societal push for higher education—once learners become adults, they no longer have those same external motivators. They get replaced by internal motivators, which are individual to each learner. 

Internal motivations for learners could be to get a raise or promotion, to improve their skills in a relevant area, or to improve their life both in and outside of the workplace. For this reason, it’s important that companies spend time understanding what motivates their learners so that these motivators can be part of what shapes the learning development process.

How you approach adult learners will determine your success

With a new understanding of Malcolm Knowles’ concept of andragogy, think about applying these assumptions before your next course or training. At the end of the day, your learners want to feel that you believe in their talent, trust them to do well, and want to invest in their future. By applying Malcom Knowles’ assumptions, you’ll be on your way to doing all three.

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