Pedagogy or Andragogy

There are many debates in higher education about the most appropriate term to use when talking about teaching university students: pedagogy or andragogy. Neither term is particularly well defined with pedagogy basically meaning the practice and methods of teaching based on theories of education and andragogy referring to teaching adults (Cannon, 2001; Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000).

Pedagogy is often associated with teaching children because it comes from a Greek word meaning leader of children and is seen (by some) as referring to an approach to teaching which is predominantly instructional (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000; McGrath, 2009; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). In addition, critics suggest pedagogy frames learners as passive recipients of content transmitted by a teacher and is limited because it fails to address the needs of adult learners, who bring life experience and knowledge to their learning (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000; McGrath, 2009; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

Concerns about the ways adults are taught had been raised for decades, but the newer term ‘andragogy’ (which had first been used in the late 1800s) did not gain popularity in adult learning contexts until the 1970s and 1980s (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000). Those who use andragogy, suggest it is more appropriate when teaching adults because users of the term do so in recognition of the wealth and experience adults bring to their learning (Knowles, Holton III & Swanson, 2005).

Just as pedagogy is criticised, the term andragogy also has its critics.

Concerns raised about andragogy suggest the term:

  • is more relevant in competency-based, work-based training or vocational programs (Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000)
  • fails to consider learner characteristics such as, race, class and gender and does not acknowledge the impact culture may have on how learning occurs (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007)
  • over emphasises the importance of motivation and self-esteem, making these central to how adults learn which may be problematic where students have barriers impeding entry to courses (such as time or financial pressures), have low self-esteem, lack motivation or are unable to appreciate the value in learning foundational material (McGrath, 2009).

According to Merriam et al. (2007) andragogy may be seen as more of a theory among “a number of theories, models, and frameworks, each of which attempts to capture some aspect of adult learning” (p. 103). If andragogy is a theory, can it appropriately replace pedagogy, as an overarching approach to teaching adults?

Stewart (2021, p. 22) suggests,

Learning theories are explanations of the learning process. It is not a matter of choosing or aligning to one theory or another but of using this understanding of learning as a process to make sense of the teaching designs available and guiding the use of these to best effect to secure learning outcomes. Knowing what is likely to work, when and why.

If we consider the learning theories (including adult learning theory) as part of our teaching toolbox it may be possible to address the concerns linked to pedagogy by ensuring a range of theoretical perspectives are incorporated into teaching. We would therefore include approaches from cognitivism, constructivism, humanism, social constructivism, social and situated learning etc. and appropriately apply them in our teaching practices so the needs of all learners (regardless of age, cultural or other background, motivation, learning experience etc.) are met. Perhaps the focus should be on using the most appropriate theories rather than whether andragogy or pedagogy is more appropriate.


Holmes, G., & Abington-Cooper, M. (2000). Pedagogy vs. Andragogy: A False Dichotomy? The Journal of Technology Studies, 26(2), 50-55. Retrieved from

McGrath, V. (2009). Reviewing the Evidence on How Adult Students Learn: An Examination of Knowles’ Model of Andragogy. Adult Learner: The Irish Journal of Adult and Community Education, 99, 110.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). A Theory of Adult Learning: Andragogy. In The Adult Learner (pp. 35-72): Routledge.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. B. (2007). Learning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide(3rd ed.). doi:

The Fundamentals of University Teaching at Flinders uses the term pedagogy, rather than the term andragogy because it is broad in scope and is well established. Although it is not well defined, pedagogy basically means the practice and methods of teaching based on theories of education (Cannon, 2001; Holmes & Abington-Cooper, 2000).


By Dr Ann Luzeckyj, Senior Academic Developer, Teaching Specialist

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Teaching Notes

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