Although learning has traditionally been associated with childhood, adolescence and youth, the truth is that the capacity of human beings to learn exists throughout their life trajectory.

In this article we’ll look at Andragogy , the discipline that investigates how learning occurs at advanced ages.

The change of conception about aging

The term ageing has been linked throughout history to a connotation of deterioration and inability to perform effectively the various roles usually assigned to earlier stages of the life cycle. Thus, from antiquity to the last century, individuals in the stage of ageing have been isolated, abandoned or despised . This very traditional tendency was derived from the short life expectancy that has accompanied the human species throughout the centuries.

In recent decades, with the beginning and development of the industrial revolution and capitalism as an economic and social system, this nature has been substantially modified, establishing a life expectancy that is close to 80-85 years on average in Spain.

A change of mentality

Advances in medicine, technology , and a greater globalised knowledge derived from scientific research, as well as the development of the state of well-being by the political systems, have contributed to providing a greater quality of life with regard to the type of work carried out (less physical), the reduction of the hours corresponding to the working day, the knowledge and application of healthy lifestyle habits, etc.

Therefore, since the beginning of the vital stage called old age (around 60 years of age) , the individual has a long vital journey ahead of him , which begins to move away from the old conception as a period of loss of faculties and incapacity to replace it with another more optimistic denomination where the subject can carry out new learning, can play new roles and can live new personal and social experiences that are equally satisfactory.

Related to this, a recent classification on the definition of the vital stage of old age is distinguished in this new conception. Thus, at present , not only chronological age should be taken into account, but also social age (assumption of roles), functional age (adaptation to historical and cultural changes), psychological age (adaptation to different personal circumstances) and biological age (capacity of the individual’s biological organism).

What is Andragogy?

Andragogy is defined as the discipline that studies the field of education in the adult individual, that is, the particularities of how learning takes place in adulthood, maturity and senescence .

The establishment of this branch of pedagogy as an area of study of its own is based on a series of characteristics that differentiate it from other similar sciences. Specifically, the central assumptions are aimed at highlighting the distinction between the target audience of a given discipline. Thus, the student or adult learner presents an autonomy, a capacity for reflection, a level of previous experiences that is much greater than those that occur in the child/youth stage.

Among the premises on which Andragogy is centred, the following are mainly differentiated: the fact of presenting a personal and self-directed conception of learning , the influence of previous experience for the assumption of new learning and vice versa, an emphasis on learning applied to concrete everyday situations, as well as defined with a real purpose and the provision of a very significant and determining level of intrinsic motivation.

Applications of Andragogy

Among the most relevant applications of this discipline are the following:

  • The stimulation of the interest of the learners insofar as the contents are linked to the resolution of real problems; the objective is not centred on the memorisation of abstract and theoretical concepts.
  • The invitation to reflection through a methodology based on open questions that facilitates the effective realization of the process of self-evaluation of such learning.
  • Favouring a more collective, cooperative and participative way of working

Theoretical bases of andragogic modelling of education

The main components in the mndragogical model of adult education are focused on the following topics

  1. It is defined as a non-attendance and inclusive teaching system in which it is taken into account that each trainee presents specific vital particularities, objectives that can be very different, both in terms of personal and professional development.
  2. It is adapted to the social needs of the adult , where the level of ability, experience and learning previously acquired is respected, so a methodology is required that considers the existence of different learning styles.
  3. The fulfilment of the needs relating to social advances in terms of innovation, knowledge and imagination;
  4. This is a phenomenon that can extend over the entire life span , covering different stages and periods of the individual’s life.
  5. The figure of the educator is understood as a guide and advisor , who offers his or her support and facilitates the learning process in a more collaborative way and not so much in an instructional or behavioural way.

Determining factors in adult learning

The factors that determine the way in which learning takes place in adults can be derived from external or environmental aspects and from internal or personal aspects . Among the first group, the type of life circumstances that surround the individual learner can be highlighted, such as what kind of objectives he or she has when receiving this instruction (if they refer to a personal or professional purpose), what means he or she has at his or her disposal at the level of logistics, time/hours, etc., to invest in the process or other factors related to the social context in which he or she is enrolled.

Among the personal factors, we highlight the level of capacity, competence and ability to learn, motivation and interest in the content, the level of tolerance to failure, emotional stability to combat concerns and uncertainties about the results obtained, cognitive skills such as attention, memory, language, concentration, etc., or the existence of adaptive behavioural habits, among others.

Learning in old age

As mentioned above, the adult learner has intrinsic characteristics that differentiate him or her from younger people. Therefore, it is essential not to lose sight of the need to adopt learning styles and methods adapted to the characteristics or peculiarities of each of the different profiles of adult learners.

Thus, some differentiations can be made with regard to cognitive, physiological and/or affective features s that determine how they rectify the contents worked on during the learning process. Depending on this last phenomenon, three dimensions can be distinguished regarding the types of learning attributed to adult education: active-reflective, the theoretical-verbal and the pragmatic-global.

With regard to the defining characteristics of learning methodologies for adults , it is worth highlighting the high level of participation in the classroom , a greater relationship with the context of interaction and its problems or particular situations, learning is more oriented towards the task and the practical application of the contents internalized, the work carried out therefore has an interdisciplinary nature and there is a greater possibility of generalizing the learning that has been done.

On the other hand, an essential aspect is the autonomy with which each student works in relation to the learning carried out. Each individual regulates and organizes himself in terms of tasks, time invested, disposition of the study schedule, etc., as well as in the evaluation itself of how he is carrying out this learning. We are therefore talking about self-planning, self-regulation and self-evaluation of learning.


As we have seen, Andragogy involves a paradigm shift in the way learning is conceived as a phenomenon intrinsically linked to childhood and youth. It is necessary to analyse and establish the differences between one type of student body and another in order to adapt the methodology and type of content to ensure that such learning can take place from the first years to the last stages of life.

Bibliographic references:

  • Dorfman, L.T., et al. Incorporating intergenerational service-learning into an introductory gerontology course. In Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 39 (1/2), pp. 219-240. New York: Published by The Haworth Press.
  • Fernández-Ballesteros, R. and others. (1999) What is the psychology of old age? Spain: Biblioteca Nueva.
  • García Mínguez, J. and Sánchez García, A. (1998). Un modelo de educación en los mayores: la interactividad, Madrid: Dykinson.
  • Orosa Fraíz, T. (2001). The Third Age and the Family. Una mirada desde el adulto mayor, Havana: Editorial Félix Varela.