Why the “why” matters to adult learners

The word pedagogy continues to be used in higher education, even as more adults return to the classroom. Additionally, asynchronous online courses continue to increase, making it more difficult for faculty members to assess student understanding of the material and for adult learners to feel connected to the material. Therefore, faculty, particularly those teaching online graduate programs, need to emphasize the six andragogic principles developed by Knowles (1995). Knowles assumes that adults:

  • are independent and have a strong sense of self,
  • rely on their background and previous experience,
  • try to learn based on external influences,
  • try to connect learning with everyday applications,
  • are naturally motivated to learn
  • require justification or the “why” of assignments.

Explain the “why”.

As director of a public and academic library, I routinely explain policies and why preparing for unforeseen events is essential. This kind of exploration and long-term planning has allowed libraries across the country to adapt quickly to the COVID-19 shutdown. It’s also something I embedded into my Library and Information Sciences (LIS) curriculum in Fall 2020 as a new faculty member. After all, I’ve spent my entire professional career helping people answer questions: “Where can I find…”, “How do I search for…”, “Why do I need to know…”, “When will I ever use…”.

Understanding that students are unfamiliar with the intricacies of their future professions and that adult learners need to know the “whys,” I first attempted to provide context to the course’s learning objectives. Nonetheless, an unexpected pattern emerged in student surveys — praise for my concise instructions, including the who, what, where, when, how, and most importantly, the why of assignments (W5H).

My video lectures on the core content imparted basic knowledge; However, the students gained a better understanding of the theories by describing the W5H in videos before assignment. In addition, the students created more robust work products to use in their current work environments. For example, a student’s technology proposal received 100% funding from an outside foundation to implement new technology in their local library. Another student’s instructions for navigating a local library’s catalog were placed on their website — although the student had no prior association with the organization. Another student researched and established an LGBTQIA+ collection for inclusion in a community youth section.

As more adults enter higher education, faculty will benefit from incorporating andragogic principles into the curriculum to meet the needs of adult learners to understand the “why” of assignments. Curating hands-on assignments while providing appropriate context can allow learners to engage more fully with the course. Students can then develop a deeper understanding of how coursework can be applied to their future profession. Below is an example of a library management task that articulates the “why.”

Developing a theory of leadership paper

Order Information: This task expands your current working knowledge. The purpose of this white paper is to help you determine the best leadership style for effectively managing library stakeholders. Use the APA 7th edition citation style. The paper size is 10 to 12 pages.

This assignment is mandatory: As a manager, you will meet different personalities and build relationships with numerous stakeholders. To that end, it’s important that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of leadership style and how best to interact with your employees. For example, when I was working in a public library, one of my employees came into my office and asked me if I thought she was doing a good job. I explained to her that she is doing an excellent job and that I value her as an employee. However, during our conversation, I learned that she needed more consistent praise to reassure her of her place in the organization. When I praised another employee a few days later, the employee questioned my authenticity. The conflicting responses were an enlightening experience and helped me define who I am as a leader and how to express my gratitude in meaningful ways to meet the needs of individual employees.

There are three objectives of this task.

  1. The paper will help you further explore several leadership styles you encountered during the course.
  2. The paper allows you to reflect on your personality traits and what leadership style appeals to you. Then think about how you’re going to lead from the start?
  3. The paper provides insight into how you might respond to different leadership styles in your manager’s workplace.

dr Kristen L. Becker is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, where she shares experiences from her 20-year career in libraries with students. Her current research focuses on leadership and policy in nonprofit organizations.


Knowles, Malcolm S. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston, London: Golf, 1995.

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