PART 1: Principles for facilitating adult learning


Who are your workshop participants? Understanding adult learners


The theory of adult learning a.k.a. ‘andragogy’ (Knowles 1984-2002) makes the following assumptions about adult learners:

(1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something.
(2) Adults have extensive life experiences that they can draw from, in order to learn.
(3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving.
(4) Adults learn best when they recognise how new information can immediately be applied in their own context.


In addition, other learning theories tell us the following about how all people learn (Merriam, 2001):

 (5) We remember and internalise new information better when it is accompanied by an emotional shift. We need to
      make an emotional connection with fellow learners, the instructors and/or learning material.
(6) Our learning is improved when our learning environment is safe and inclusive.
(7) It is helpful to reflect on how we learn, in order to improve our own learning abilities and strategies.


The workshop participants’ needsHow the workshop facilitator can address those needs

To know why they need to learn something

Articulating the workshop outcomes and how it will benefit the participants. Introducing each workshop activity by not only explaining how it will work, but also its purpose.

To be able to draw from their own life experiences / context

Including self-reflection exercises/activities that will prompt the participants to think about and share their own experiences, as a source of further learning.

To engage in problem-solving

Including problem-solving and idea-generating workshop activities that challenge participants to address interesting issues that are relevant to their own context. This does not have to result in clear-cut answers, but should help them to consider new approaches for navigating complex situations.

To be able to immediately apply new information

Ensuring the workshop introduces new information that participants will find both interesting and useful. In order to do this, information can be included on knowledge-acquisition activities that allow them to think about how they can apply this new knowledge in their own environment.

To experience an emotional shift as they learn

Facilitating activities that help participants 1) to get to know one another, 2) to engage in collaborative issue-analysis and 3) to practice collective problem-solving. The social nature of these techniques expose participants to different perspectives, and so can expand their understanding of the subject matter - not only on an interllectual level, but also on an emotional level.

To experience the learning environment as safe and inclusive

Before the workshop

  • Considering - as the pworkshop is being designed - participants´ prior knowledge, physical abilities (for F2F workshops), levels of digital literacy (online workshops), language abilities, and cultural perspectives.

During the workshop:

  • Facilitating a socialising phase, to create a comfortable space with some sense of warmth and familiarity.

  • Guiding participants through each phase of the workshop, by providing a clear programme with sufficient breaks and structure. (Online workshops may require some technical onboarding).

  • Including equal opportunities for participation, and encouraging thoughtful responses.

To reflect on their own learning and to improve their learning strategies

Including moments in the workshop that allow for self-reflection, and for reminding participants to consider not only what they are learning, but also how they are learning.

Note: Recording workshop outputs (notes, mind maps, discussion summaries, etc.) ensures this process of self-reflection that can continue after a particular workshop session.


PART 2 : Applying the principles to your workshop planning


The above principles can be integrated into the various phases of the workshop (including pre- and post-implementation).

Please see the summary here that includes these principles, along with a few additional practical steps for workshop coordinators and/or facilitators.



  • Merriam, S.B., 2001. Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2001(89), p.3.
  • Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.
  • Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing.
  • Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Smith, M. K. (2002) Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy. The encyclopaedia of pedagogy and informal education. https://infed.org/mobi/malcolm-knowles-informal-adult-education-self-direction-and-andragogy/

Further reading/resources