“I Don’t Care About My Grades – I Want A Job that’s More Satisfying!”: Adult Motivation for Learning is More Intrinsic than Extrinsic

Male instructor and female student working at a computer

Most adults have a host of reasons, some complicated, some personal, for participating in learning. Appealing to those motivativating factors, then, is key to engaging adult learners. Knowles theorizes that adults are more motivated by abstract, internal concepts than by physical, external matter. A little confused? Let’s review.

female instructor and student smiling while one is writing
Maine Math Coaching Project, photo by Emily Kessell, 2018

Knowles’ Fifth Assumption

Knowles’ fifth assumption about adult learners proposes that adults are typically motivated to learn more by intrinsic than extrinsic factors. To clarify, “While adults are responsive to some external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries and the like), the most potent motivators are internal pressures (the desire for increased job satisfaction, self esteem, quality of life, and the like).” (Knowles, 1990, in Lubin, 2013)

For some children, school and learning can feel like a competition – who can get the highest grades, achieve the greatest SAT score, finish with the best GPA, earn the most scholarship money, gain acceptance into the most prestigious college, and other such extrinsically motivating factors. Similarly, other kids might be extrinsically motivated by the prospect of a high-paying job that doesn’t require a college degree. Essentially,

Male instructor and female student working at a computer
Dr. Griswold with a student, photo by Johanna Prince, 2010

learning behavior is driven by the expectation of receiving a tangible payout of some sort – a reward, if you will. According to Knowles, adult learners, however, are much less motivated by such material prizes than they are by more internal, abstract factors such as feeling better about oneself, enhancing or improving one’s quality of life, or personal growth and development.


Appealing to internal motivators through design is a little trickier than our other strategies have been. Transformative learning experiences can help improve learners’ motivation and confidence by allowing them to try something new or think about things from a different perspective. An “a-ha moment,” if you will, can be encouraged by “Incorporat[ing] ways for students to interact with alternative points of view, either via projects and activities, or through collaborations with others who have diverse views and experiences.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)

Educators from the transformative learning theory recommend this process for creating transformative learning experiences:

Woman smiling at the camera while sitting next to a 3D printer
Delaware Libraries Ultimaker 3D Printer, photo by John Abella, 2014
  • Begin by “creating an environment in which students open their minds to new possibilities about
    their lives and futures. To do this, it is first important to create trust. If students feel comfortable they will be more likely to share their thoughts, ask questions, and be open to probing or opposing views.” (Henderson, 2010 in Digital Promise, n.d.)
  • Next, design instruction that “facilitate[s] a ‘trigger’ event. Look for ways to get students to stop, pause and consider something that differs from their current thinking or world view. (Henderson, 2010 in Digital Promise, n.d.) Reading news articles, working with simulations, participating in team projects, conducting research, and discussing videos can introduce opportunities for triggering events (Dirkx & Smith, 2009 in Digital Promise, n.d.), where students are presented with alternative viewpoints.”
  • Finally, allow the learners to examine their new knowledge and/or perspective, and do something with it to cement the transformation. “For example, publishing a paper, producing a video or photo essay, developing a new goal, researching a new career, or joining a professional organization are all ways to take action. Not all students will have a transformative learning experience, but researchers argue that for some adult learners, this type of learning can make the difference between success and failure.” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014 in Digital Promise, n.d.)

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

To summarize: the critical point here is that learning in adulthood is by choice, and most adults will be more motivated to learn something if doing so means some internal, intrinsic need will be met. Designing instruction for intrinsic motivators can be challenging because we all have different ones, but generally speaking, ensuring safe space for adult learners to engage in thinking from a different perspective, creating a “trigger” moment, and allowing students to apply and reflect on their new thinking, is just one strategy for helping to improve adult learners’ confidence and be motivated to engage in learning.


Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/designing-for-adult-learners.pdf
Lubin, M. (2013). Coaching the adult learner: A framework for engaging the principles and processes of andragogy for best practices in coaching (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/22017/Lubin_MM_D_2013.pdf

Supporting Appropriate Technology for Early Learners

Screenshot_2019-02-15 Technology NBE Observations - Google Drive(1)

What the Research Tells Us

The foundation of early childhood education is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP), a concept that brings together knowledge of child development, the development of the individual child, and the culture of the child (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).  The importance of using DAP for digital technology in an early childhood classroom is no different than when using other types of materials and tools (Fred Rogers Center, 2012).

The Fred Rogers Center (2012) provides two principles for digital media use: a) “quality digital media should safeguard the health, well-being, and overall development of young children, and b) quality in digital media for young children should take into account the child, the content and the context of use” (p. 6).  These principles support DAP through intentional use of technology in the classroom. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new guidelines for screen time that emphasize the importance of adults working with children in researching the apps used, understanding and co-engaging in digital content.  

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) technology standards for students begins at age four. The 2016 ISTE Standards for Pre-K-12 students emphasizes fitting technology into pedagogy rather than focusing on the technology as a tool (ISTE-S, 2016).  The ISTE Student Standards (2016) and the NAEYC Technology Statement (2012) share an emphasis on appropriate pedagogy, collaboration, and understanding technology use. ISTE-S provides a framework for developing intentional and appropriate classroom interactions with digital technology for young children. Foundations are built for young children to become Technology Literate Students (ISTE, 2016) in the areas of active learning, and social outcomes through communication and collaboration.  As digital technology becomes more prevalent in education settings, early education teachers need to focus on introducing and extending technology.

Selected Examples of Interactive Technology for Early Childhood Classrooms

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.57.58 PMThe multi-touch table is an emerging technology in early childhood classrooms designed to foster group collaboration. The multi-touch table’s size and multi-user interface allows the young child to move and play around the table while interacting with other children, potentially answering concerns about young children, technology and decreased social engagement and physical activity.  Using a multi-touch table can assist in creating foundational skills such as group collaboration around a shared goal.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.58.08 PM

Digital microscopes are another technology that encourages interactive engagement.  Digital microscopes allow young children to explore materials found inside and outside the physical classroom. If you are introducing nature education into your curriculum, digital microscopes create opportunities for deeper exploration of the natural world.  A great way to do this is to have the children use the digital microscope to examine outdoor items they collect, and have children make entries into a science journal to record their observations.

Tablets can also be used as an interactive tool in the classroom.  We often focus on apps that can be useful for research or discipline specific knowledge building.  There are tools designed for use with tablets such as Osmo which offers numerous interactive learning tools. Tablets do not need to be expensive, and inexpensive tablets can be used for many purposes including children  authoring and illustrating a classroom e-books. And let’s not forget the learning resources and activities found on the web such as PBS Kids and Epic! Books.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.58.20 PMOther examples of interactive technology include resources for coding, such as (to mention a few) Ozobot, Cubelets, Sphero, and Code-a-Pillar.  Smart phones and digital cameras are multi-purpose (as all teachers know) including recording and taking pictures of the children’s interactions and work for assessment. Assistive Technology is so rich that these materials have their own blog post. This picture is an example of switches that activate the drumsticks when pushed.

Technology in early childhood classrooms needs to emphasize interaction. Teachers should always become familiar and comfortable with the technology before introducing it into the classroom.  Digital technology should not be a passive means of engagement or used as a “reward”. As an early educator, you understand child development – use that knowledge when integrating digital technology into your classroom. And Have Fun!


Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S. (Eds.) (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice (3rd Edition). Washington, DC: NAEYC

Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. (2012). A framework for quality in digital media for children: Considerations for parents, educators, and media creators.  Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE Standards – Students.  Retrieved

from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-students

National Association for the Education of Young Children & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. (2012). Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Retrieved from: http://www.naeyc.org/content/technology-and-young-children

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 12.58.31 PM

Donna Karno is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Maine at Farmington.  Donna has been active in the early childhood profession for over twenty years and works with pre-service and in-service teachers.  She has worked in different capacities within the early childhood field including as a Director and lead teacher. Donna’s research and teaching passion is to aid early childhood professionals in using digital technology for parent communication, classroom practice, and professional development.

“Will this Help Me Solve this Problem Now?” Adults’ Orientation to Learning is Problem-Centered vs. Subject-Centered

Remember back in blog post #4 when we discussed the idea that adults prefer to engage in learning that will help them to solve problems? Knowles’ fourth assumption about adult learners revisits this concept. Let’s review.

Knowles’ Fourth Assumption (and, coincidentally, his Fourth Principle, too)

older man and woman working with a multimeter
Arduino 101 class, photo by Fabrice Florian, 2016

Adults don’t want to learn more content that they need to file away for future use; they want to learn things that can help them solve real-time problems: “As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.” (Knowles, 1984)

Instead of listening to a two-hour lecture, for example, about psychological conditioning theories and processes, adults would prefer to learn how they can use psychological conditioning immediately in their lives – the obvious example being dog training. To adults, the application of the theory is more interesting and useful than the theory behind it. “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that…it will help them perform tasks they confront in their life situations.” (Litster, 2016)

We have learned from studying the brain that it “…continues to change and grow

women pretending to make soup
Nature Based Education, photo by Bob Bailie, 2018

through adulthood, and that learning centered on problem solving helps make necessary connections for such growth. The key is to structure problems on what the learner encounters in work/life situations, and then help them practice strategies to solve them.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)

And speaking of brain science, we’ve also discovered the importance of including “…problems that involve both sides of the brain’s learning centers. Specifically, learning activities that draw on the creative strengths of the right side of the brain and the verbal and analytical strengths of   the left side are most effective. So, incorporating multiple approaches and pathways to solutions in games and activities is a good strategy to help students use both sides of their brains when solving problems.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)


Designing instruction with Knowles’ fourth assumption in mind means learning should be organized around real-life tasks, whether professional or personal, instead of subject matter. For example, “…a child in a school composition class learns grammar, and then sentence and paragraph construction. An adult in a composition training program learns how to write a business letter, a marketing plan, etc.” (NHI, n.d.)

Many resources on instructional design for adult learners suggest the use of case studies and scenarios. Other types of activities that encourage problem-solving include 

a group of female nursing students
Simulation-Betty-014, photo by Drew Morris, 2015
  • Asking open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer
  • Role-playing
  • Debates
  • Simulations

Even in the workplace, learning can (and should!) be problem-centered: Think on-the-job training.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

Problem-centeredness was obviously important to Knowles: He based both a principle of his adult learning theory and an assumption about adult learners on it. Therefore, “Instruction should be task-oriented instead of promoting memorization – learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed by the others.” (Pappas, 2013) Adult learners want to solve problems and perform tasks that can improve their personal, professional, and/or academic lives. It’s not enough to lecture about, say, operant conditioning: We need to let adult learners train and reward their OWN dogs to truly understand it.


Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/designing-for-adult-learners.pdf

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Litster, J. (2016). Breaking barriers: Research report. The principles of adult learning. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/epale/sites/epale/files/the_principles_of_adult_learning_.pdf?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Fways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs&utm_medium=link

National Highway Institute. (n.d.). Principles of adult learning and instructional systems design. Retrieved from https://www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/downloads/freebies/172/PR%20Pre-course%20Reading%20Assignment.pdf

Accessible Educational Materials

Accessible Educational Materials

Please note that the terms Accessible Instructional Materials and Accessible Educational Materials are used interchangeably throughout the post.  Accessible Educational Materials is the more current term.

Curricular content in print-based, video, and other multimedia formats present significant barriers to students with learning, physical, sensory, and other disabilities.  Meanwhile, the availability and purchase of these educational materials are expanding and student and teacher creation is booming. What do educators need to know about accessibility in the process of purchasing and creating educational materials?

Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) are defined by the National Center on AEM as:

Accessible educational materials, or AEM, are print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks and related core materials that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format (e.g. print, digital, graphic, audio, video).



Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) – Textbook Access

The origin of the term Accessible Instructional Material, a predecessor to the term Accessible Educational Materials, stems from the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004. Within that statute is a provision that requires state and local education agencies to provide textbooks and related core instructional materials in specialized formats to students with print disabilities in a timely manner. In Maine, “timely manner” means “at the same time as students without print disabilities.” The provision in IDEA was referred to as the “AIM initiative.”

You can also read Maine’s AIM: Acquiring Accessible Instructional Materials for All Kids from Kittery to Fort Kent at:

http://maine-aim.org/docs/ME_AIM_doc_2013.pdf   (please note that aim.cast.org has now been replaced by aem.cast.org.)


Curry, C. (2016, May 18). AT and AIM/AEM for on-demand access to reading materials [webinar]. Maine AIM Program.

Note:  opening the link to the archived recording of the webinar requires Flash.  The speaker’s notes and presentation slides are available in separate files.

The following materials provide specific steps for considering a student’s need for and, subsequently, providing it.  Please note the materials may use the term Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM)- the materials were prepared prior to the change to Accessible Educational Materials.

Steps to Providing AIM (Maine AIM Program’s YouTube channel).   

AIM Under 5: Print Disability (Maine AIM Program’s YouTube Channel)



Bookshare provides materials in digital text format and is a free service for U.S. students. Organizations (district or school) can create organizational memberships and add qualifying students. In order to fully utilize Bookshare’s tools, students will need individual memberships, as well. Here are some important areas of Bookshare’s website:

Bookshare Demo:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffpjpi-8ghs

Reading Tools:   https://www.bookshare.org/cms/help-center/reading-tools  

Note that Bookshare’s digital text file format is DAISY, which stands for Digital Accessible Information SYstem. Students will need a DAISY reader to access them or use the free Web Reader (see Bookshare’s Reading Tools page).

Closed Captioning: Benefits, Sources, and Tools

Here are an overview closed captioning, two articles that explain the benefits of closed captions for all learners, as well as sources for turning on closed captions on a variety of devices and services, and instructions for how to caption your own YouTube videos. 

Overview of Closed Captioning


 This video demonstrates two important and often overlooked features of high quality closed captioning: Appropriate pacing (timescales) and inclusion of sounds that occur when the narrator isn’t speaking (i.e., music and audience clapping). Consider watching it twice: The first with the sound off and the second with the sound on. 

Flawless Transcription Closed Captioning for YouTube Example

Turn on and try Closed Captioning

Instructions for turning on closed captions for multiple devices and services.



iPad, iPhone, iPod


Creating Subtitles and Closed Captions (YouTube)

Copyright considerations

Students and teachers acting as good digital citizens is important.   Copyright and fair use: Is it legal to caption public YouTube videos that don’t belong to you? http://www.3playmedia.com/2014/01/08/copyright-law-fair-use-is-it-legal-to-caption-public-youtube-videos-that-dont-belong-to-you/   


Audio Description: Benefits, Sources, and Tools

For an introduction to audio description, go to the website of Listening Is Learning. Be sure to explore the examples.


Here’s an example of audio description. Watch it twice; the first time with your eyes closed.   The Hunger Games with audio description: Katniss hunting

The Audio Description Project.  Search for audio description by television, movie, DVD, and more.


Turn on and try Audio Description

Video-described shows by network (Audio Description Project)


Audio Description for NetFlix


Research suggests that audio description is beneficial for sighted students. Read the following article from Listening Is Learning: http://listeningislearning.org/background_description-no-bvi.html


Walter H. Kimball is Professor of Education at the University of Southern Maine.  Dr. Kimball has been a special education teacher, school district special education director, school district Title One director, university professor, and project director for an assistive technology certificate program.   He currently serves as a Product Reviewer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). He gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Cynthia Curry to this post.

On a Need to Know Basis: Adults’ Readiness to Learn Depends on their Need to Know Something

male and female students smiling and chatting

Adult learners may not be engaged because they don’t feel they need to know what they’re being taught; perhaps their jobs don’t demand it, they already know it, or they haven’t yet come to terms with a need to change. Knowles’ third assumption states, “As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.” (Knowles, 1984) Let’s review.

Knowles’ Third Assumption

smiling man with a robot prototype
Robot World Prototypes, photo by Fabrice Florian, 2017

Adults are more likely to engage in learning something when they feel they need to know it – such as learning a new work skill when a promotion is imminent, or studying a new discipline when they’ve been laid off or are ready for a change. From an andragogical perspective, learning is triggered by a need to change something – essentially an assessment of “what I know versus what I need to know” – in order to perform more effectively. “Adults are driven to learn new skills or understand new concepts based on the ever-changing demands of work and life, so timing the learning to correspond with the tasks at hand is at the heart of this principle of adult learning. Learning to transform oneself and society resonates within this principle of adult learning.” (Lubin, 2013).

While schooling is mandated for children in the U.S., it’s important to remember that adults choose to be educated, and usually with a specific purpose in mind: “Learning in adulthood is usually voluntary. Thus, it’s a personal choice to attend school, in order to improve job skills and achieve professional growth. This motivation is the driving force behind learning and this is why it’s crucial to tap into a learner’s intrinsic impetus with the right thought-provoking material that will question conventional wisdom and stimulate his mind.” (Pappas, 2013)

male and female students smiling and chatting
Students, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016


In addition to needing to know WHAT they’re learning WHEN they need to know it, adults also want to know how HOW learning will be conducted and WHY it is important. The significance of this assumption, then, is threefold:

  • Know and understand the learner’s expectations and needs through needs assessment performed prior to the learning activity. This allows for appropriate collaborative planning, to avoid teaching content that is either too basic (the learners will view the experience as a waste of time) or too difficult (they may lack foundational knowledge necessary to understand the content), or is perceived by learners as irrelevant to their needs;
  • Introduce goals and objectives – that is, what learners will be able to know or do with the knowledge acquired – early in the learning experience; and
  • Present a syllabus, an agenda, or a training outline at the beginning of the learning experience to give the learners a preview of what they will learn. (Palis & Quiros, 2014) 

    female instructor talking with three women around a table
    Dr. H. and three students, photo by Bob Bailie, 2014

Remember, adults are in your class (training session/workshop/educational experience) most importantly because they choose to be. “When working with adult learners, you should cut any unnecessary theoretical background from your training content. Keep only the essential parts, and enrich your training with simulations and real-life case studies that facilitate knowledge transfer. Incorporate on-the-job training sessions that teach your learners specific skills that they’ll be able to apply to their own everyday workflows.” (Andriotis, 2018)

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

Simply put, adults are much more likely to engage in learning if they can clearly see how it will benefit them by closing the gap between their current knowledge and necessary knowledge. You can promote success with your audience by separating critical from non-essential information, framing the learning as beneficial for improving skills, introducing the goals and/or objectives of the learning experience right up front, and providing a preview of what the audience will learn. When adults see value in what they are learning when they need it, how it will happen, and why it is important, they are much more likely to engage themselves with it.


Andriotis, N. (11 June 2018). How to adapt your training to the characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/ways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Lubin, M. (2013). Coaching the adult learner: A framework for engaging the principles and processes of andragogy for best practices in coaching (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/22017/Lubin_MM_D_2013.pdf

Palis, A. and Quiros, P. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 21(2): 114–122. doi:10.4103/0974-9233.129748.

Pappas, C. (8 May 2013). 8 important characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/8-important-characteristics-of-adult-learners

“I Know Something About That!” – Adults Bring Personal Experience to the Learning Environment

man sitting in front of laptop listening to someone

Malcolm Knowles’ second assumption about adult learners reiterates the second principle of andragogy regarding the experience adults bring to the learning environment. Let’s review.

Knowles’ Second Assumption

As we learned from the second principle of Knowles’ theory (see blog #3), adult learners bring significantly more experience and/or prior knowledge as a resource for their learning: “As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.” (Knowles, 1984).

men and women standing around a computerized easel in the 1980s
Classroom, 1980s. Photo by University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, 2016

Essentially, what this means is that children and adults view experience differently: “To children, experience is something that happens to them; to adults, experience is who they are. The implication of this fact for adult education is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adult will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but rejecting themselves as persons.“ (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011).

Jenny Litster of the UCL Institute of Education (2016) affirms the position noted in blog #3: “Learning is built on previous knowledge and experience. Educators must recognise therefore that life experience and knowledge is a valuable experience; this is Knowles’ second principle of andragogy that experience, including making mistakes, provides the basis for learning activities…experience can, however, be negative as well as positive, particularly for adults who are re-engaging with learning [after] negative experiences of compulsory schooling.” (Litster, 2016)


Adults learn by experience, but also love to share their experience with particular subject matter. As a course designer, you can leverage this desire for sharing by having adult learners teach one another:

  • Discussion forums and/or real-time chat sessions allow your learners to exchange stories with one another

    man sitting in front of laptop listening to someone
    Summer Technology Institute 2018, photo by Bob Bailie
  • Activities such as storytelling, group discussions, debates, etc. are excellent opportunities for adults to share while also reflecting on and reviewing their own experience in terms of what is being taught. (Palis & Quiros, 2014)
  • Fishbowls allow groups to share ideas and observations
  • The World Cafe is a conversational process about questions and issues that matter. Conversations build and link with each other as participants move from group to group (think speed dating for groups) creating a collaborative, cross-pollinated approach to problem solving. In a World Cafe model, learners are not only sharing with one another, but are also oriented to problem solving, as we discussed in blog #4.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

man in a baseball cap listening in class
Student, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

Adults bring a vast array of experiences and/or prior knowledge to the table in any learning situation, and that experience is as varied as the individuals themselves. Acknowledging and valuing this experience, and finding a way to integrate it into instruction opens a gateway to learning beyond the traditional instructor role. Simply saying “I realize you probably already know something about this, but let’s see if you can learn something new about it” might be the best way for you to be redeemed in your colleagues’ eyes, and encourage their engagement and collaboration.


Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., and Swanson, R. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Litster, J. (2016). Breaking barriers: Research report. The principles of adult learning. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/epale/sites/epale/files/the_principles_of_adult_learning_.pdf?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Fways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs&utm_medium=link

Palis, A. and Quiros, P. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 21(2): 114–122. doi:10.4103/0974-9233.129748.

Pappas, C. (9 May 2013). The adult learning theory – andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles

Be A Trail Guide: Adults are Self-Directed and Independent Learners

navigational compass sitting on a map of southern asia

In addition to some basic principles of adult learners, there are also some important assumptions about adults that will help improve your ability to design effective instruction.

The first assumption of Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy deals with self-concept.

Knowles’ First Assumption

Like most other things in life, adults are independent and self-directed in their learning.

Women smiling and working at a table
Instructor and student meeting, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

Knowles defined this idea of “self-concept” in his first assumption about adult learners: “As a person matures his/her self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.” (Knowles, 1984)

Jenny Litster of the UCL Institute of Education (2016) explains,

The key difference between learning that happens in school and most learning that takes place after the end of formal education is that adults choose to engage in learning. And unlike children, who are required by law to go to school, adults are free to choose to engage and to persist in education…

Self-concept refers to one’s belief in oneself as competent and capable in a
particular domain…Adults need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction. This is therefore linked to Knowles’ first assumption that adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (see blog #2). Adults need to…have the freedom to learn in their own way and they also need guidance and support to learn in their own way…A focus on self-directed learning is a reminder that adults have their own motivations for engaging in education, and are capable of engaging in self-directed autonomous learning. (Litster, 2016)

Let’s review the pedagogy vs. andragogy chart that we explored earlier in this blog series. Note the row entitled “The Learner” differentiates child and adult learners, particularly with regard to the role of the teacher (who, intentionally, isn’t even mentioned in the Andragogy column). When it comes to adult learning, the “teacher” should thus become more of a “trail guide” who essentially hands the student a map, points out key features and landmarks, provides a means of contact for support, and wishes the student well on their journey.


Since “Many adults bristle at being told what to do and micro-managed every step of the way” (Bleich, 2018), learning experiences should be designed to allow for plenty of independent thought, minimal instruction, and limited instructor intervention (certainly be available if students need help, but ensure the responsibility for requesting assistance lies with the students).

navigational compass sitting on a map of southern asia
Compass on A Treasure Map, photo by hmomoy, 2010

Here are five easy strategies to become a better trail guide:

  1. Have learners pool a resource bank of skills they offer their peers – perhaps they are experts at editing or research – allow them to offer these skills in trade for someone who is an expert with a new technology tool.
  2. Provide learning menus for adults
  3. Design short stackable video tutorials that adults can watch when they are stuck
  4. Use consistent ‘trail markers’ in your online learning content so adults can navigate easily through the content
  5. Intentionally design goal setting, and reflection into the learning activities so adults feel agency over the direction they are taking

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

For adults, learning means self-directed, independent thought and work. The role of the adult educator is to provide support and guidance as needed, with minimal oversight, while allowing learners to explore and make and correct errors on their own. So what does this mean for you?

It depends on the material, but generally speaking, allowing the audience to read and digest the material(s) with little to no direction will set the stage for autonomy.


Bleich, C. (8 July 2018). How understanding the adult learning theory helps us create better eLearning. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/adult-learning-theory-helps-elearning-development

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

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