Andragogy as a Guide for Serving Adults in the Online Environment

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

The theory of andragogy provides a framework for assessing the needs of adult learners so that academic programs can be tailored to serve this growing demographic within higher education. This presentation is designed to demonstrate how online courses can be designed and managed using an andragogical approach to support the adult learning environment.


Faculty Program Director of Master of Science in Criminal Justice. Over 20 years experience in academia. Joined Excelsior College in 2013. Earned Juris Doctorate from the University of Toledo College of Law in 1998. After several years in the legal field, she determined that she could give back and make more of an impact on people’s lives through teaching. She went back to school and earned an MSCJ with a forensic psychology concentration and an MBA. As a lifelong learner herself, she truly believes in Excelsior's mission.
Anna Zendell is Senior Faculty Program Director for the Masters in Health Sciences and Masters in Health Care Administration at Excelsior College. She earned her Ph.D. and MSW in Social Welfare at the University at Albany. In addition to a social work career with people with lifelong disabilities and their caregivers, she has developed and taught online and face-to-face courses at Excelsior College and the University at Albany for over fifteen years.

Extended Abstract

Academic programs that primarily serve adult learners should be based upon the theory of andragogy, which should inform the ways they recruit, admit, educate and support learners in reaching their long-term goals and objectives. Adult learners enroll in programs because they are already conscious of what the degree can do for them, so they are seeking the institution’s assistance in reaching those goals and objectives. Institutions should recognize that degree plans serving this population need to be clearly articulated, from entrance requirements, course descriptions, course schedules, to what learners can specifically do with the degree.

Adult learners are also balancing family, work and other personal obligations, but are intrinsically motivated to find the time to continue their education. That’s why institutions serving this population should reduce artificial barriers to entry, such as the GRE, and should structure academic programming that holds student accountable to completing high quality work that meets defined expectations but does not penalize learners for maintaining their other responsibilities such as family and work. Adult learners should be actively involved in the learning and evaluation processes of courses and academic programs, with learning experiences specifically designed to incorporate the rich experiences of the adult learners by creating rich shared experiences, and also utilizing the feedback of learners to continually enhance the academic programs serving these students.

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), knowledge is a precondition for all other categories of learning and involves the memorization and recalling of facts. The five categories beyond knowledge (understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create) are considered “skills and abilities,” with comprehension being the least complex while creating is considered the most complex of all skills.

As a higher education director and instructor, I seek to instill knowledge at the creation stage for my students. This requires the engagement of my students with hands on learning activities, not just traditional lectures. This is why each course that I teach requires students to submit a final paper which requires them to demonstrate all levels of learning within Bloom’s Taxonomy by defining a public challenge, demonstrating an understanding of this challenge, applying this understanding to facts that are analyzed and evaluated for creation of a new set of recommendations on how to best address the public policy issue.  

Andragogy contends that adult learners are self-directed and are 100% responsible for their own learning. Academic programs designed to serve this population need to acknowledge that not all learners are the same, so enough flexibility is required in the delivery of programs to accommodate for the diversity that exist. This starts with the recognition that students are willingly enrolled, and contrary to scientific management theory, learners are not inherently lazy and are always seeking ways to get-by. This is different from “pedagogy,” which contends that young learners are not self-directed, so they require instructors to closely guide them in all aspects of learning. Programs need to have structure on the one hand but need to have enough flexibility to accommodate for the unique needs of each individual in an overall supportive environment.

Institutions that serve adult learners need to ensure that academic content provided is applicable and useful to the professional and personal lives of learners. Youth, as distinct from adults, are usually told what to learn in preparation for the next level of learning. On the other hand, adults require curriculum that is relevant to the real-life issues, problems and the task they face. Programs should incorporate case studies, group work, simulations, interactive lectures and professional projects into the curriculum. Through this type of educational process, learners will become better equipped to immediately increase performance in their professional roles in addition to enhancing their other aspects of personal lives.

The motivation for adult learners to enroll in academic programs is intrinsic in nature, and derives from self-confidence, curiosity, personal development and the desire for a better life. Conversely, youth are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as grades, judgement by others and fear of failure. The power of intrinsic motivators makes the educational experience of adult learners more satisfying because they want to be there, not because they must be. Adults tend to be more focused and persistent because they can readily apply what they have learned in their professional roles and can immediately reap the rewards of additional education. Institutions serving this population must be cognizant of the intrinsic motivations of adult learners and should structure educational programs to building upon these intrinsic motivators. 

To effectively serve adult learners, institutions and instructors serving this population must be cognizant of the differences between adult and youth learners. Traditionally, institutions of higher education primarily served youth (ages 24 and below), so almost all institutions of higher education are designed to serve this demographic. However, adult learners (ages 25 and above) now constitute over 40% of higher education enrollment, but most institutional processes and academic programs are still designed to serve youth. By using the theory of andragogy to guide the design of marketing, recruitment, academic programing and support services, institutions and programs serving adult learners will be much better positioned to effectively serve these learners. 

Level of Participation:

This will be an interactive session where participants will be able to pose questions during the beginning of the presentation, discuss a topic in breakout rooms and discuss group finding during the end of the presentation.

Session Goals:

Attendees will be able to discuss the unique needs of adult learners, identify the differences between attributes of online courses informed by the theories of pedagogy and andragogy and construct strategies for the delivery of an online learning experience designed for adult learners.