As discussed in previous sections, we know that many students who choose to study online have non-traditional profiles, the most common of which is their age. Online students (especially successful ones) tend to be older and have expectations and resources that may differ from students who have more recently graduated from secondary education.

Pedagogy for adults

Key terms

Andragogy: Teaching strategies developed for adult learners. Malcolm...

The word pedagogy is often seen as inappropriate to the needs of adult students, given its foundations in the study of how children learn (the root of the term 'peda' reflects the association). In response to this, several decades ago Malcolm Knowles discussed and popularised the need for an art and science of adult learning, an 'andragogy' that would reflect the distinctions between how adults and children learn. This concept is relevant to our discussion of the design of learning environments for online students for numerous reasons.


Teaching strategies developed specifically for adult learners.

Creating choice

Useful links

James Atherton on Knowles' andragogy in his introduction to learning...

One of the cornerstones of andragogy is choice. Knowles observed that older students resented the constrained nature of many traditional course learning activities and that more mature adult students wanted additional authority and agency regarding how to demonstrate their understanding of course materials.

This has led some to advocate for more options in the design of course learning activities and assignments. Giving students choice and variety has a number of benefits. Notably, it supports the adult learner's desire for greater authority and it reduces the likelihood that students will be bored or otherwise alienated by their coursework.

In the next activity you will see a variety of online learning activities. These will give you a small sampling of what is possible. Please note – this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Click on the tabs on the left-hand side to find out more about some of the online learning activities that can work particularly well for andragogy.

Let's now consider some of the online learning activities that can work particularly well for andragogy. These will give you a small sampling of what is possible. Please note – this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Video interview

In the video below, practitioners discuss adult online students and the...

In the interview below, practitioners discuss adult online students and the...

Guest speaker

Teachers can bring additional expertise into the 'classroom' in the form of virtual guest speakers. The teacher sets up a module or section in the course for the interaction, sets up the activity, introduces the guest speaker, provides access to the guest speaker, and creates the kick-off document for the guest speaker to use to start the discussion, or presentation. The guest then interacts in the course.

Student summaries

Single sentence or paragraph. This simple technique challenges students to answer the questions 'Who does what to whom, when, where, how, and why?' (WDWWWWHW) about a given topic, and then to synthesise those answers into a simple informative, grammatical, and long summary sentence.

Pop quiz

These quizzes can be used as 'curve busters', opportunities for students to earn extra points and improve their grades by answering questions correctly. Pop quizzes are unannounced and can be inserted at any time into any course module. A pop quiz section to each module with an explanatory document can alert students that a pop quiz might occur at any time. Information on the pop quiz aspect of the course should be clearly detailed in the course information documents and in the 'at a glance' areas of the module in which they are likely to occur.


This is a technique for generating useful ideas, and promoting creative thinking. It can be very useful to help generate ideas for projects, and to encourage shy or reluctant students or solve problems. This can be conducted online as a small group discussion activity or with the class as a whole. Provocations can be a useful technique to promote brainstorming.

Class-created annotated bibliography

A glossary of various types of resources for any discipline. Using a course wiki, students can be directed to regularly contribute a certain number of shared references to the class. As a directed learning activity the teacher can evaluate each student on the quantity of submissions, and require that the student include a summary and appraisal of the resource.


Informal debates encourage students to think critically about an issue(s) presented in a teaching session, allowing for interactive class discussion. They are implemented by dividing students into two groups, each of which is assigned a point of view to debate based on controversial material that has been presented in class. It is a pro-and-con discussion of a controversial issue. The objective is to convince the class (audience) of a position. The two groups prepare the strategy for each side, and whole class discussion areas are used for the actual presentation of the debate in the online course.

Almost any learning activity can be designed to be carried out in an online course. Most important is that the teacher set up the activity with all the supporting and explanatory documentation necessary for the students to understand fully:

Portfolio activity

Reflect on how you can give your own students choice when it comes to learning...

  • What they are to do
  • When they are to do it
  • Where in the course it will appear
  • What is expected specifically
  • How they will be evaluated.

Areas in the course must be designed in advance by the teacher to account for, accommodate, explain, model, and evaluate each activity.

Key terms

Andragogy: Teaching strategies developed for adult learners. Malcolm Knowles argued that adults and children have different learning needs. Relative to children, adults are capable of greater self-direction and are more likely to want to be included in curricular decisions.

Useful links


How does having older students in an online course affect the activities one might include?

Dr. Keith Kinsella
Online Coach on the MA in Leadership and Change programme, Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter

When you have to work with adults, they bring a lot of experience, they bring a lot of issues they want to work on. They don't come wanting knowledge. They want to sort out issues facing them, and you have to respond to that. And first of all you have to find out what the issues are, and you also have to recognise that they have a lot to offer in addition to what you have to offer. So, we really have to start thinking about dialogue, about development, rather than instruction.

In what ways can tutors use online materials to enhance the adult-learner experience?

Wilma Alexander
Learning Services Manager, University of Edinburgh

So, online materials generally, whether they're part of a distance online course or whether they're part of a blended course, provide an opportunity for a much more level playing field and a much more inclusive learning experience for everyone, but the key there is to ensure that you implement the technology in a way that meets standards and in a way that is going to allow most people to access them easily.

How have you catered for more self-directed learner in your online course?

Dr. Keith Kinsella: On the programme I work on, we make a lot of use of the learning log facility where we're asking them to identify issues that they're struggling with and how I, the coach, might help them. So it's a much more responsive approach rather than, 'Here's some content. I'm going to teach you.'

Dr. Patsie Polly
Senior Lecturer in Pathology, School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales

So, the blended activities I teach cater for more self-directed learners in the way that they're very integrated. So a self-directed learner will, more often than not, want more information, and they may go and travel throughout that online activity and find another link that I've planted in that activity, access that, usually in their own time and in their own space. So they are the types of learners that want to be self-paced, doing it when they want to do it, and they learn more effectively in that regard.

What advice would you give a tutor who wanted to create an online course for older, more self-directed students?

Dr. Sarah Williamson
Head of Student Engagement and Education Support, Cardiff University

When designing courses, I think there are some really simple basics to understand and to think about. Make sure that the content that you're putting in there is really easily navigated to, instructed, and that you've got a very basic, simple structure to how you outline things. Make sure that all the deadlines, and anything that students are going to be expected to do, are clearly displayed for the students to look at, and just basically so that they can get hold of their content, the interactions that they're supposed to be doing, as easily as possible.

My best bit of advice would be, get somebody who's not involved in education, you know maybe a family member or something, come and have a look at the way you've laid something out and say, 'Would this be easy for you to find your way around it?' If they can't, then you know you need to go and do a bit of a tweak on the design of it, but students just appreciate it if things are as simple and straightforward to access. Don't overcomplicate things. Make sure things run as smoothly as possible. If you can do all of that, you'll have very happy students.

Wilma Alexander: I think, particularly with adult learners, they tend to be very strategic in their approach to their learning. So they need to understand why they might do something, they need to be very clear on why a particular element of the course is there. So while it's very useful to ensure that there's a different pace for the materials, that you might move from something that is text heavy to something that is more multimedia, mixing video with sound and so on, you do need to be sure that there's a good reason for changing the medium.

How would you persuade more reluctant adult learners to give studying online a go?

Dr. Keith Kinsella: I think adult learners are frightened of online learning. You know, you don't have a person in front of you, you can't relate to them. So you have to get them over this fact that there's not going to be a teacher in front of them who can be present and responsive. So you have to, first of all, get them to realise that there is some value to be gained from the online experience.

I think the biggest advantage that I've found is that people, because it's online, it's available 24/7, 365 days a year, and the people I work with are busy, you know they're doing full-time jobs, and they can look at this content whenever they want to. They can download it, they can take it on trips with them, they can take it in the car. So they can go after the content when they've got the time and when they've got the interest. Well, you can't do that if you're in a face-to-face classroom environment, can you?

The other thing is that, certainly in a coached environment, the online learner is asked to write, to reflect on what they've read and tried out, and to write down their reflections, which I think is a very powerful learning process which you don't again get in a face-to-face classroom environment. People aren't asked to write things down. If you have to write things down, you have to reflect, and straight away that's a very powerful learning experience.


Duration: 15 minutes

Reflect on how you can give your own students choice when it comes to learning activities in an online course. Record three ideas for learning activities, including your plans on how best to implement each one.

Download the attached document to record your ideas, or complete the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio.