College of Education

Adult Learners: Motivations for intellectual growth

By Dr. Julie Fernandez and Dr. Krista Allison | October 12, 2023

For anyone teaching, training, or working alongside adults, Andragogy is a critical concept to know and understand. Like the notion that children’s learning may be enhanced through certain practices (pedagogy), andragogy asserts that adults learn best when some principles are applied (Knowles, 1968).  Malcolm Knowles, the predominant theorist behind adult learning theory, posits that six principles of andragogy are important to consider: 1) the learners’ need to know; 2) the self-concept of the learner; 3) prior experience of the learner; 4) readiness to learn; 5) orientation to learning; and 6) motivation to learn (Knowles, 2005, p.3).

Figure 1 Andragogy in Practice (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998)

Learners Need to Know Why, What and How

Whereas children depend on adults to teach them what they need to know, adult learners are more independent and seek knowledge to understand the world at a higher level. The “why?” question was forever spoken when my daughters were young. My answers for them at the time were surface level, an easy answer to explain why things happen as they do. “ Why can’t I stay up all night?”  “Because you will be too tired to go to the beach tomorrow.” Asked and answered. 

However, adults seek a more profound understanding when they ask, “Why?”. This learning process is the basis of educational research- why, what, and how are the questions we seek. Why don’t all students learn mathematics the same way? Why do some populations of students do better in single-gender schools than those who are not in single-gender schools? Adults are forever asking questions to deepen their understanding to find solutions. Adult learners seek the epiphany, the “oh, that is why…” moment—connecting the why response to what that means in my profession to how we can lead change to fix the situation. Research is not just about writing a paper for a degree or publication but finding solutions to the big “why .” You will become more motivated in your classes and research if you embrace the why and apply the answers to your professional situation.

Self-concept of the Learner

Adult learners must be independent learners who problem-solve when facing the unknown. Children expect teachers to give them the resources they need to find answers. As adults, searching for answers and directing your learning is critical. I have had students contact me for bibliographies for their topic, especially topics I regularly write about or teach. Sometimes, I share references, but often it is more beneficial for students to learn how to seek, think, and understand on their own. If they have a glaring hole, I will question them about their sources or lack of credible sources. For example, one student wrote a paper on school culture and climate. She wrote a five-page paper but left out a  prominent researcher who has written many papers and books on the topic. When I asked her about that author, she looked at me with a blank stare. I was amazed that she did not see him cited in any of the articles she used for her paper. My job as a professor, dissertation chair, and mentor is to guide rather than to give all the answers. 

Prior Experience of the Learner

Prior experience is important to consider when assisting adults in the learning process. We all have differing experiences, and acknowledging those in the education experience can prove beneficial. Discussions are very dynamic when professionals discuss a topic from different perspectives. What one person sees in a situation is different than what another sees, and this is crucial to understand as one seeks to teach, train, or work alongside adults. 

Mental models are how you see the world and understand relationships between ideas and concepts. Mental models are ingrained and often depend upon your experiences. The more you learn outside your assumptions about a topic, the more you grow as an expert. When writing about any topic you consider your area of expertise, do more research by researchers with the opposite point of view, then seek to synthesize the material. You may disagree, but also learn as you broaden your knowledge scope. 

Readiness to Learn

Preparing oneself to learn new concepts and theories is something that all adults must complete before venturing into a new endeavor.  Is the material meaningful? Does it matter? If not, why pursue learning? 

Over the years, I have found that the doctoral students who will walk away with the most profound learning are open to expanding their perceptions and perspectives and believe that the material matters. They are in the library studying and are excessively talkative in class about new concepts they have learned. They find new information and share it with anyone who will listen. This student has overcome the fear of learning new things and hopes to use the knowledge they gather during this process to make significant changes in their professional world. They see an opportunity to learn about themselves and their research topics, even in difficult times.

 Unfortunately, I have also seen students who came in to get a degree for a pay raise or for a position they covet. They do the least amount of work they can do without failing and write mediocre research papers, rarely participating in class discussions. They have a rigid point of view and resist growing a new mental model or worldview. Instead, they were not ready to learn and were there for potential extrinsic rewards, not intellectual growth.  

Orientation to Learning

Orientation to learning is directly connected to why you choose to learn the idea or concepts you are exploring. The learning process involves analyzing ideas and using that knowledge for immediate benefit. I remember when my children were infants and did not sleep at night. When sleep is deprived, and the desire to sleep is a potential immediate benefit, one sets out to learn potential solutions! I became passionate about learning all theories on child sleep methods and tools that may benefit babies’ sleep schedules. There was a problem: lack of sleep, and I wanted to solve it. I was determined to find a method or process to benefit my baby and me. This happens to adults when they see the potential for immediate benefit from the learning process. Orientation to learning is often a matter of urgency and value and often stems from a problem they want to solve. 

Motivation to Learn

Adults need a connection between their learning and what they want to do with the outcome. Gaining a sticker at the end of a training session is not enough. Instead, there needs to be intrinsic value connected with the learning experience. Learning experiences will be most beneficial to adults when they are internally motivated and driven to achieve. Though financial gain or promotion may benefit motivation, internal desire outweighs external pressures for adults. 

In conclusion, considering the theory of andragogy can prove beneficial whether you teach, train, or work alongside adults. The six tenets Knowles (1968) discussed may help us better understand what adults value and desire during the learning process. So, the next time you plan a webinar, present a project to colleagues, or helping a friend, consider the concept of andragogy! 


Knowles, M. S. (1968). Andragogy, not pedagogy. Adult Learning16(10), 350-352.

Knowles, Malcolm S., et al. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. ProQuest eBook Central    

Knowles, M., Holton III, E., & Swanson, R. (1998). The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.

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