Utilizing Adult Learning Principles and Universal Design for Learning to Advance Student Success

Group of students working together with adult learners and younger learners

The demographic profile of college students is shifting from traditional-aged to adult learners. Andragogy, or the study of adult learning, can provide insights on how to teach adult learners more effectively. Traditional-aged students are emerging into adulthood and many aspects of andragogy can benefit them as well. In traditional pedagogy, the faculty member is a “sage on the stage,” but in andragogy, this shifts to a “guide on the side.” Malcolm Knowles (1984) identified six principles of adult learning that can create more engaging learning experiences to meet individual student needs and foster a higher likelihood of academic success. By linking andragogy to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines, I offer suggestions for how faculty can advance student success using them.

UDL was developed by CAST (2018) as a framework for designing curricula that enables all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. UDL identifies ways learning can be supported through guidelines for multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression. Multiple means of engagement focuses on the “why,” the purpose and the meaning in learning. Multiple means of representation focuses on the “what,” both learning resources and developing knowledge. Multiple means of action and expression focuses on the “how,” enabling learners to be both strategic and goal directed. Utilizing these guidelines can help faculty reduce the barriers their students might face in mastering learning, while also ensuring that everyone is meeting the same high standards for learning.

According to Knowles’ (1984) principles of andragogy, adults focus on the need to know. This relates to the engagement component of UDL through the “recruiting interest” strategy (CAST, 2018). Some options for recruiting interest involve giving students choice and autonomy. A simple way to do this is to let students pick the topic of a paper or project. This choice also increases the relevance and value of the learning. If students pick a topic that relates to their life, it becomes authentic to the learner. Another way to recruit interest is to establish clear guidelines on the assignment and avoid distractions, as well as provide supportive instruction and supplemental resources.

Understanding the goals of learning and how they benefit one’s life are critical. A faculty member should make learning outcomes clear, but also provide a broader context for how those outcomes relate to the world outside of the classroom. The “need to know” can be addressed by helping students see how learning is sequential, and what is being covered now will help them learn additional content in the future. Recognizing the negative impact of not achieving the required learning helps reinforce the need for it. By taking the approach of a guide on the side, a faculty member can encourage students to identify for themselves why they need to know the content and create a deeper connection to the learning.

A second principle of andragogy is self-concept (Knowles, 1984), which relates to “self-regulation” in UDL (Cast, 2018). Adults move beyond being dependent and become self-directing (Knowles, 1984). In pedagogy, students are dependent on the instructor to teach them. In andragogy, the faculty member guides students to help them find meaning. Some ways that faculty can help promote self-regulation include encouraging students to set goals, promoting coping skills and strategies, and utilizing reflection to learn from mistakes.

The idea of self-directed learning relates closely to the UDL guidelines where options are provided to engage students in their learning and demonstrate their mastery of the content (CAST, 2018). The more flexibility that faculty can provide students in how they approach their learning, what format the instruction is provided in, and the ways they assess learning, the more likely a student can choose the path that best works for them. Allowing students to select their topic of interest for research or a project increases engagement. Faculty should provide hands-on activities, videos, podcasts, as well as textbooks, articles, and lectures to cover content. They should also give students choices in how they demonstrate their understanding, like a written project, presentation, oral or written discussion, or creative representation.

The third principle is to engage the prior experience of the learner (Knowles, 1984), which also relates to “recruiting interest” in UDL (CAST, 2018). Giving students choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning, connecting their learning to prior experiences, and providing a safe space to take risks with learning all support engaging prior experience. One of the most interesting things about teaching adults is the vast experience they bring to the classroom. Encouraging students to share their experiences with each other validates them and creates additional peer learning opportunities. A faculty member honoring students’ expertise is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate the guide on the side teaching approach. Explaining the theory behind what students already know reinforces their experience and creates an “ah-ha” moment that deepens learning.

Readiness to learn is the next principle of andragogy (Knowles, 1984). This is one area where traditional-aged students and adults can vary greatly. A young person might enter college without any idea of what they want to do in life, and that can create barriers to their readiness to learn because they are not yet committed to it. Adults know the challenge that taking classes creates for their family and work lives so they must have a strong commitment to be ready to learn. However, this readiness to learn can also create resentment for adults when degree programs require courses that they are not interested in taking. Helping students find relevance in something that they do not immediately relate to can be a challenge, but when overcome it can create greater engagement. Ways to help improve readiness to learn are inherent in the UDL guidelines in sustaining effort and persistence (Cast, 2018). Some strategies to do this include ensuring that the goals and objectives are relevant and through challenging students, but also providing the resources needed to meet the challenge. Additionally, find ways for students to collaborate with each other and integrate feedback that helps move students toward mastery.

The fifth principle of andragogy is that adults’ learning orientation is life-centered and problem-centered (Knowles, 1984). This means that adults do not want to learn in the abstract; they want concrete examples of how learning applies to their lives. Providing examples of how other students were able to use the learning can help reinforce this important principle. Because adults thrive on solving problems as part of the learning process, building problem-solving activities into coursework is important. Offering case studies for students to deliberate over, or even asking students to identify their own problems to solve can create greater engagement. In UDL, multiple means of representation and action and expression provide opportunities to make learning life- and problem-centered (CAST, 2018). Varying the ways that students demonstrate their learning with an emphasis on authentic assessment is important. Using audio and video, as well as writing, can help mimic the real world. Focusing on the executive functioning needed to work toward meeting goals by monitoring progress, as well as managing information and resources, is important to relate to real-life problem solving.

Intrinsic motivation to learn is the final principle of andragogy (Knowles, 1984). This internal motivation relates to students performing better at work, feeling better about themselves, and improving their quality of life. While the external motivation of better pay or a degree requirement for promotion may motivate adults, recognizing that intrinsic factors can be more important is critical. When faculty consider what motivates adults, they can look back at the other principles and realize self-directed, life-centered, and problem-solving approaches can support motivation.

Considering how students’ lives affect their learning is an important theme that runs through the principles of andragogy. Recognizing that everyone learns differently is the foundation of UDL. Leveraging those ideas into teaching approaches can create a more satisfying and successful learning experience for students.

Peggy Rosario, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Doctoral Program at Gwynedd Mercy University in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania.


CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Knowles, M.S. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Gulf Publishing Company. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED084368.pdf