Learn About Andragogy and Teaching the Self-Directed Online Learner

Teaching adults can be rewarding for any educator. Adult students, especially those who are taking online classes, have a specific reason for the classes they choose – even if a class only meets an elective requirement. For online instructors, they know the process of managing a class involves being assigned a predetermined curriculum where all learning activities have been established. What can enhance the work of an educator is to know more than the facilitation requirements for teaching a course – they also need to know how to teach adults and understand how adults learn. As to the question regarding how adults learn, the answer lies within a learning theory known as andragogy. This is translated to mean the art of teaching adults. By learning more about this theory it can help to inform your work as an educator and allow you to better address the developmental needs of your students who want to become self-directed learners.

What is Pedagogy?

Before you learn about andragogy it is of benefit to discover the meaning of a contrasting theory known as pedagogy. This is translated to mean the art of teaching children. Pedagogy has been well established within the educational system and is set in place during a child’s developmental years. Pedagogy as a teaching style becomes an approach that is teacher-centered. The teacher makes all of the decisions about the learning process and children are taught to be dependent upon their teacher. It further emphasizes that children must be told what they need to know and never to question this established practice. The use of a pedagogical teaching style continues all the way through high school, with teachers leading the class and students being involved as passive participants.

What is Andragogy?

Once students graduate from high school it has been established by society that they are now adults. If they go on to college and attend a traditional classroom setting they will likely find that a teacher-centered pedagogical approach is still in use. But the theory of teaching adults known as andragogy seeks to make a distinction between the needs of children and that of adults. Malcolm Knowles is credited with the development of four principles that indicate what characteristics adults have and the needs they generally possess. Adults have experience where as children lack having the context of life experience. Adults expect to be involved in the learning process and want to be responsible to some degree. In other words, adults want the knowledge gained to be relevant to their lives, meet career goals or provide professional development, and be a result of what they have done in their role as a student. Adults want the classroom to be student-led.

Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

It may be difficult to translate andragogy as an instructional strategy as there are not many related teaching models. What makes it even more challenging is the use of teacher-led classes that is still prevalent in traditional colleges. There are changes within the field of education that are acknowledging the need for a new approach and a flipped classroom is one of those growing trends. However, one of the most important aspects of andragogy is the characterization of adults as self-directed learners. Self-directed refers to adult students being in charge of their education and making decisions about their involvement in the process.

The field of online learning has been responsive to meeting the needs of adults and there are many programs that have been developed specifically to address their needs. The challenge involves making a determination of how much control should be given to students. To some extent an instructor must always be involved to guide and coach students through an established curriculum. Even though an instructor may not be able to change the setting or established curriculum for their course, there are steps that can be used to acknowledge and address adult students as self-directed learners.

Teaching Self-Directed Learners

My experience as an educator has involved teaching students in a traditional and online environment. My professional preference is online learning since there is an automatic shift from being teacher-led to teacher-guided, and to me that sets the stage for applying the theory of andragogy to my work. Here are some steps you can use to teach adults students and acknowledge their need to be self-directed.

#1. Make Learning Relevant – Encourage students to connect what they have learned to their career, career aspirations, or professional development. This connection promotes retention of the information they have acquired.

#2. Make Learning Engaging – Discussions provide instructors with an ability to interact one-on-one with each student. This is an opportunity to guide them as they come to understand and work with the course concepts. This is also a way to help correct any misunderstanding they may have about any of the topics.

#3. Make Feedback Meaningful – When students submit their papers it allows instructors to follow their progress and understanding of the course concepts. As you evaluate the content of what was written provide insightful comments to help continue their learning. For the mechanics of the paper, provide corrective feedback as needed to help continue their development of critical skill sets.

#4. Give Choices When Possible – This could be a matter of allowing students to choose a discussion topic to address or offer topics for them to choose from with an assignment. The more your students believe they are involved, the more likely you will gain their buy-in and participation.

Accountability and Responsibility

There are other challenges associated with utilizing andragogy and the self-directed principles – and it involves the nature of adults. As children, they are required to attend school and follow a specified program. When they turn 18 they are presumed to be adults. The question is, does every new adult know how to be responsible and become a self-directed learner. They’ve been taught in a certain pedagogical manner since the first grade, which means as children they have learned to be dependent upon their teacher – and becoming independent may take time for them to learn.

For online students their initial classes are difficult at times because it is expected that they are able to be responsible and accountable for their work. They must manage their time and make certain that deadlines are met. And while there are students who are more than ready and prepared for the task, many are not. Part of the indoctrination of students to online classes is the change in their locus of control. Now they are in charge of their education, not their teachers. All of this aligns with the principles established by Knowles. Applying it in a uniform manner to all adult students is challenging because of their varying characteristics and predisposition to a teacher-led class. If you take the essence of andragogy and decide to make your class meaningful, you will be able to address your adults as students and create an environment promotes learning.