The number of adult learners continues to grow, requiring educational institutions and individual teachers to understand how adults learn and the best practices that lead to the most success in teaching adults.  

An important place to start is understanding the differences between pedagogy and andragogy. With about 35% of college students now adult learners – and with the popularity among adult learners of online degree programs – it’s more important than ever for educators to learn how to succeed in teaching adult learners. 

Pedagogy vs Andragogy 

Pedagogy derives from the Greek for “child” and “leading” and refers to the science and practice of teaching children. Researcher Malcolm Knowles first introduced the term andragogy in about 1968 in reference to a model for teaching adults. Some of the main differences between the two, as defined by the Institute on Aging, include the following. 

Children in education:  

  • Rely on others to decide what is important to learn  
  • Accept the information being presented at face value 
  • Expect what they are learning to be useful in their long-term future  
  •  Have little or no experience upon which to draw – are relatively “clean slates” 
  • Little ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to the teacher or fellow classmates 

On the other hand, adult learners:  

  • Decide for themselves what is important to learn  
  • Need to validate the information based on their beliefs and experience  
  • Expect what they are learning to be immediately useful 
  • Have much experience upon which to draw – may have fixed viewpoints  
  • Significant ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to the trainer and fellow learners 

These differences provide the foundation upon which educators incorporate the instructional differences between the two groups.  

Insight Into How Adults Learn 

Education experts consider Knowles a trailblazer in adult learning. His work, which began in the late 1960s, helped educational institutions shape how they approach the design of courses intended for adult learners. 

Knowles, who taught at Boston University and the University of Arkansas, developed six characteristics of adult learners. 

  • Need to know: Adults want to know why it’s important to learn something 
  • Foundation: Adults use experience in learning activities 
  • Self-concept: Adults want a role in deciding what to learn in their education 
  • Readiness: Adults want to learn things they can apply immediately 
  • Orientation: Adults  want a problem-centered education rather than content-oriented 
  • Motivation: Adults respond better to internal rather than external motivators 

Three Common Themes of Transformational Learning  

The late American sociologist Jack Mezirow developed the concept of transformational learning, which involves changing how adult learners think about themselves and the world. Teachers can guide adult learners on the path to transformation by keeping these elements in mind. 

Centrality of experience  

All adult learners look at new information through the lens of what they have experienced before. Allowing adults to bring these experiences into the classroom discussion is important, but educators must also challenge adult learners when necessary on their preconceived beliefs. 

Critical reflection  

Adult learners understand well how past actions have an impact on the present. Critical reflection allows them to question current assumptions and accept new possibilities. 

Rational discourse  

Educators must ensure an open conversation about course topics, including the viewpoints of students who may base what they believe on authentic experience. In rational discourse, the insight from critical reflection is put into action.