Howard McClusky’s Theory of Margin

Andragogy, as defined by Malcolm S. Knowles (1984), is a theory based on the psychological definition of adult, which states that people become adults psychologically when they arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives, of being self-directing.

Basing andragogy on six assumptions about the adult learner, Knowles distinguished andragogy, or the art and science of helping adults learn, from other areas of education, especially pedagogy, the art and science of helping children learn.

Although andragogy may be the most well-known model of adult learning theory, there are other models that also propose perceptions into how adults learn. One such model was introduced in the early 1960’s by Howard Y. McClusky, a Professor of Educational Psychology and Community Adult Education at the University of Michigan from 1924 until 1982. McClusky set out to find ways to help adults uphold an optimistic view of life.

McClusky’s Theory of Margin was pertinent for understanding adults, especially as they aged and faced increasing demands or pressures. McClusky believed that adults faced continuous growth and transformation and with this growth and transformation a steady effort had to be made to use the energy available to meet ordinary living responsibilities. But because adults have no control over many issues of their lives, they must discover ways to prepare themselves to meet erratic emergencies or predicaments as they arise. McClusky theorized that the main factors of adult life are the load the adult bears in living, and the power that is on hand to bear the load. Margin was considered a formula to communicate the relationship between the load and the power. According to McClusky (1970, p. 27), load is “the self and social demands required by a person to maintain a minimal level of autonomy…. [Power is] the resources, i.e. [sic] abilities, possessions, position, allies, etc. [sic], which a person can command in coping with load [sic]. In this formula for margin (M), he placed designations of load (L) in the numerator and designations of power (P) in the denominator (M = L/P).

This formula proposes that the greater the power in relationship to the load the more margin will be available. The load-power ratio changes throughout an adult’s life as changes in power or load factors occur. Spare or excess power provides a cushion to better deal with load requirements. Margin can be increased by reducing load or increasing power. In simple terms, the more margin an adult has, the more equipped he or she will be to deal with the source(s) of the load. The less margin an adult has, the chance of dealing productively with the source(s) of load decreases. Load factors can include such external things as family, career, and socio-economic status as well as internal things such as goals, future expectations, and desires. Power consists of external resources such as family support and economic abilities. It also includes internally acquired experiences such as coping skills and personality.

Thus, according to McClusky’s Theory of Margin, an adult must have some margin of power as an available resource in order to engage in learning or meet other life demands.


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

McClusky, H. Y. (1970). An approach to a differential psychology of the adult potential. In S. M. Grabowski (Ed.), Adult Learning and Instruction. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 045 867).