Designing Instructional Articles
in Online Courses for Adult Learners


D. Verne Morland
Managing Partner
ROI Learning Services
and Herbert L. Bivens
Principal Consultant
ROI Learning Services
Note:   This paper was published in the November/December 2004 issue of Innovate, a bimonthly online periodical published by the Nova Southeastern University.


Aspiring teachers are taught the elements of pedagogy, originally the art and science of teaching children. Many aspects of teaching adults, however, are fundamentally different than those employed in teaching children. In order to acknowledge these differences, a new word — andragogy — gained currency in the late 20th century. This article highlights the important principles in teaching adults and suggests teaching strategies to support these principles in online courses for higher education and corporate learning programs.

The entire content of this article is also presented in the form of an online "mini-course" on the authors’ website. In the online version we seek to engage you, the reader, as we recommend that you engage your learners. By doing so we believe that you will understand our recommendations more fully and that you will be better prepared and more motivated to apply them. At the end of the online course we provide a link to a discussion group where you can discuss your reactions with us and with other readers.

Goals of This Article

Our goals in writing this article were to help you understand (knowledge goals) what distinguishes effective learning programs for adult learners and how many of these principles can be applied in online learning programs. And by showing you and engaging you in examples of these principles, we expect that you will be able to (performance goals) use these examples as models for similar exercises in your own online programs and decide which types of student engagement will work best for your learners.

Pedagogy and Andragogy

Children in classroom According to the American Heritage® Dictionary (2000), the word pedagogy is derived from the Greek paidaggos which referred to "the slave who took children to and from school," and the term is commonly understood to mean "the art or profession of teaching." Most schools of education require the study of child development, training new teachers in methods and techniques that account for children's stages of maturation.

To their detriment, most training courses for educators in higher education and corporate learning programs pay less attention to learners' needs, though the literature on adult education is quite rich. In 1833 the German educator Dr. Alexander Kapp coined the term "andragogik" or andragogy (Reischmann 2004, para. 1). The term was not widely used until it was resurrected, refined, and popularized in the 1970’s and 1980’s by Malcolm Knowles.

Children in classroom According to Knowles (Carlson, 1989 and Atherton, 2002, para. 2) two key differences in the ways that adults and children approach learning are that adults desire to be self-directed and want to take responsibility for decisions. Courses for adult learners must be sensitive to these desires and should be designed to permit some autonomy in how students approach and schedule their learning activities.

How Adults Learn

An article on andragogy in the Theory Into Practice (TIP) database, an excellent online resource by Greg Kearsley that succinctly presents fifty learning and instructional theories, lists Knowles' assumptions:

  • adults need to know why they need to learn something,
  • adults need to learn experientially,
  • adults approach learning as problem-solving, and
  • adults learn best when [they believe that] the topic is of immediate value. (Kearsley n.d., para. 2)

Principles of Adult Instruction

In their latest book, Telling Ain’t Training, Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps (2002) summarize Knowles’s work into four key principles of adult instruction:

    1. Readiness:   Training must clearly address learners’ needs so that they will be ready to learn.
    2. Experience:  Training must respect and build on the life experience that learners bring to the learning session.
    3. Autonomy:   Training must invite learners to participate in shaping the direction, content and activities of the learning experience.
    4. Action:   The connection between the training and the application of what is learned must be clear.

These principles suggest that teaching strategies such as case studies (action and experience principles), role playing (autonomy; experience), simulations (action), and self-evaluation (autonomy) are most useful. Well designed case studies, for example, provide engaging vignettes of real-world situations with which the students can identify and for which the subjects under study are clearly relevant. Students are encouraged to augment what they are learning with insights from their own life experience. And since case studies rarely have a single solution, they invite students to define and defend their own conclusions and to reflect on the application of these solutions in their own lives.

Although Stolovich and Keeps wrote their book for corporate trainers, their rules clearly apply to college and university instructors who are educating both young adults and older adult students committed to lifelong learning.

Now let's look at how we apply these principles in the context of an online course.

Applying the Principles

Principles are great, but how do we apply them? How do we transform this great advice into online courses that are more interesting and effective for adult learners?

In our experience over several decades of developing and delivering traditional and technology-enhanced training in the corporate world, we have often witnessed the gap between good principles and their application. In the remainder of this article, we suggest ways to avoid this gap by examining one common online teaching strategy — the instructional article — in detail and explaining how the ideas we have discussed so far can be put into practice.

Instructional Articles

While adult learning tends to be more problem-centered than content-centered, it is still usually necessary for students to learn specific knowledge prior to moving up to new levels of performance. In many classroom courses this knowledge transfer occurs through the time honored instructional method called “lecture.” Unfortunately (or probably fortunately!), reading long lectures on the web will not work. The principal reason for this is that it is extremely difficult to tie a lecture’s linear presentation of information, assertions, and (necessarily) rhetorical questions to the needs of the adult learner as expressed in the principles of readiness, experience, autonomy, and action outlined above.

Instead of providing a written lecture, several instructional articles that distill the major concepts addressed in the lecture are more appropriate for online learning.

Instructional articles are short and concise documents conveying relevant, critical information to support concepts, procedures, and/or performance-based skills. An instructional article is written specifically to communicate the content-knowledge necessary for improved, more advanced performance. For self-paced courses and online or web-based training, instructional articles function like a sub-chapter of a book — the content is consistent with and essential to an understanding of the overall subject.

Yet unlike a sub-chapter of a book, an instructional article is written to stand largely on its own; it can be read and understood independently. This independence is important because flexible navigation in most online courses allows learners to jump easily from one article to another, studying some articles in detail and skipping or skimming others. Although some designers may consider this user behavior undesirable since they have worked hard to plan an optimal path through the course material, skipping and skimming is likely to happen, and we would be wise to design our instructional articles so that we maximize the probability of student success. [Note: This principle is illustrated in the online version of this article.]

Article Content Guidelines

Remember the old distinction between “nice to know” and “need to know.” Adult learners will only be attentive to self-paced instruction if the content is relevant to them and if they see it as critical to their mastery of the desired skill. Good designers, like good authors, know what material needs careful elaboration and what material can be made available as an additional resource.
Successful adult learning experiences are relevant and critical. As skilled instructional designers developing course content, we should continually ask ourselves: What types of information and knowledge will the learner need to comprehend a concept and later to perform a certain task or skill?

We recommend the following specific content guidelines when creating instructional articles:

  • Each instructional article must support the learning objectives/goals of the course.
  • Get the learner’s attention immediately by clearly making the topic relevant to something important within the learner’s frame of reference (i.e., job, studies, professional development).
  • The body of the article should follow the traditional form of expository writing with an introductory paragraph, one or more explanatory paragraphs, and a summary paragraph.
  • The body of the article should also contain questions or other interactive activities, such as exercises, problem-solving situations, or short simulations.
  • Always limit the instructional article to one or two main ideas or concepts.
  • Use only the most important “need-to-know” supporting details.
  • When possible, support the article content with audio and/or video clips containing relevant information, such as “how to’s” or examples that further clarify key learning points.

Article Organization and Navigation

Organize the structure and navigation of an instructional article to enable the learner to read and review the instructional content in a short time as well as take advantage of any links, graphics, or animation that supports learning the content. Follow these simple guidelines to ensure an effective structure and navigation:

  • Minimize the need for the learner to scroll through text. A printed instructional article should not exceed three pages.
  • Use only graphics, diagrams, or pictures that lend meaning and clarification to the topic. (In some cases, graphics can also be used to get the learner’s attention; but, these graphics should not be overused because their effectiveness will diminish when the learner considers them an annoying distraction.)
  • For ease of navigation, display a link to the next article or interactive exercise at the end of an instructional article. Also, a link to the main course menu should be available on every page.
  • Hyperlink all key words, phrases and/or concepts within the instructional article to some type of glossary or reference providing for definitions and additional clarification as needed by the learner.

This online instructional format of our article provides examples of several of these points. Each page is short, and most pages require no scrolling. Graphics are used judiciously. Each page provides clear links to the previous page, the next page, and the beginning of the article. Since there is no overarching course of which this article is a part, there is no link to a main course menu. The example does not contain a global glossary, although at least one important online learning environment [Moodle] provides a powerful automated glossary feature as part of its course development toolset. [Note: Most of the content and navigation recommendations above are illustrated in the online version of this article.]

Remember, simple, clear navigation will help the learner feel in control and avoid distraction and frustration with the course.

Using these simple guidelines for content, structure, and navigation will enable you to create sound instructional articles and enable your web-based training to successfully support the transfer of learning no matter what type of information the learner needs.

Integrating Articles with Other Interactive Instructional Methods

Instructional articles should be only one of several instructional methods or teaching strategies used in an online course. As mentioned earlier, teaching strategies such as case studies, role-plays, simulations, and self-evaluations should be used as appropriate to support the problem-centered orientation required for successful adult learning.

How To Use a Case Study
A case study may be included within the body of the article, encouraging learners to notice connections between the article's text and the example as they learn a particular fact or concept.

Alternatively, the course could be set up with a single case study that includes links to all the pertinent instructional articles and student exercises. Instructional articles would then be used by learners as needed to help develop solutions to the problems presented in the case study. How learners use the instructional articles will depend upon how they approach the case study, which in turn is based upon their level of knowledge and the mistakes they make.

    - Case Studies

Case studies are one of the most effective strategies and generally do not require a great deal of special programming. Case studies, which are highly experiential and job-related, work best when coupled with supporting instructional articles. In this way, the learning experience can be more learner-directed as Knowles suggested.

Click the link in this sentence to explore a four-page case study about account management. When you are finished, close the case study window and return to this page.

    - Simulations

Simulations can be embedded in instructional articles that set the stage for the simulated activity. Simulations usually require more web development expertise but can be a useful strategy for learners needing to practice using software or working through the installation or repair of complex equipment. Simulations can also be used to enable students to explore various paths through important human interactions.

We invite you to participate in a simulation called, "The Selling Experience." This low bandwidth audio simulator was designed by The Experience Builders of Chicago, IL. In this scenario, excerpted from a larger course, you are a sales person charged with getting commitments from a potential client. Immediately prior to the simulation you would have been given some instruction on the recommended sales approach before interacting with the prospect. In the simulation, if you apply the recommended approach, you will progress deeper into the sales cycle. If you fail to apply the methodology you'll encounter a variety of sales roadblocks. This type of learning strategy is task-oriented and self-directed, another application of the principles of andragogy.

    - Self-Evaluations

Self-evaluations tend to be quiz questions, such as multiple choice or true/false. Increase motivation and learner involvement by making the self-evaluation more interactive using a “drag-and-drop” design to match correct answers with their questions or by constructing a game, such as a crossword puzzle. In a crossword puzzle, the critical cues for the Down and Across words may be taken from the definitions of key terms within the course. Instructional articles may use self-evaluations as links for review or more in-depth explanations.


Trainers, coaches, instructional designers, and university educators need to understand the dynamics of adult learning as described by Knowles and others. Knowles's insights into adult learning behaviors and motivations are supported by other research and are widely accepted today.

Excellent online training courses in both corporate and university settings apply creative combinations of teaching strategies, using methods like instructional articles, case studies, simulations, and self-evaluations to engage adult learners. Such courses adhere to:

  • the readiness principle, enabling adult learners to see the relevance of the material;
  • the experience principle, respecting the expertise learners bring to the course;
  • the autonomy principle, providing options by which learners can control their own learning paths through meaningful exercises that allow them to explore and reinforce what they are learning; and
  • the action principle, emphasizing clearly and continually the connections between what is being learned and the real world in which it will be applied.

The two versions of this article — this standard journal format and the instructional format presented on our website — demonstrate the difference format makes. The journal format is an easy, quick read and can be very useful as a compact future reference. In printed form it can be augmented with personal highlighting and handwritten notes. The online instructional format which actually employs these teaching strategies is a more engaging experience in which the learning objectives are more effectively presented and reinforced.


  1. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
  2. Conner, M, "An Introduction to Andragogy + Pedagogy," (
  3. Reischmann, J, "Why ‘Andragogy’?,", 2000 (
  4. Carlson, R, "Malcolm Knowles: Apostle of Andragogy," Vitae Scholasticae, 8:1 ,Spring 1989. (
  5. "Andragogy (M. Knowles)," Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database,
  6. Atherton, J.S., "Learning and Teaching: Knowles' Andragogy" [On-line]: UK, 2002. Available at:
  7. Stolovitch, H.D. and Keeps, E.J., Telling Ain’t Teaching, American Society for Training and Development, 2002.

Note: Web pages cited based on content accessed on 24 July 2003.

About the Authors:

D. Verne Morland is a leader in the application of internet technologies to facilitate learning and improve organizational effectiveness. He defined and directed the implementation of a global online university serving over 30,000 corporate users. Verne was a member of the core management team that consistently reduced NCR Corporation’s cost of learning while increasing course completions. Verne is the managing partner at ROI Learning Services and can be reached via email at

Herbert L. Bivens is a pioneer in the use of technology to improve the design, development, and delivery of learning programs. He has many years of diverse, successful experience in training and performance improvement. Herb’s specific areas of expertise include process improvement, instructional technology, consulting, performance technology, e-learning, and adult learning theory. Herb is a Principal Consultant at ROI Learning Services and can be reached via email at

To download a PDF version of this paper, click here.


©D. Verne Morland & Herbert L. Bivens, 2004.