Knowles (1970) has defined andragogy as the "art and science of helping adults learn" [emphasis added] yet its empirical efficacy remains inconclusive and contradictory (Rachal, 2002).
Practitioners have been utilizing -- to varying extents -- the andragogical philosophy for decades, so why is empirical study lacking? The difficulty appears to lie primarily with the definition itself. Extensive anecdotal, expository, and polemic accounts have been written about andragogy, yet researchers struggle with the lack of an operational, researchable definition (Davenport & Davenport, 1985; Knowles, 1984; Rachal, 2002).
John Rachal (2002), a former student of Knowles, emphasizes the lack of clarity in regards to what procedures constitute andragogical practice. Knowles implemented andragogy through learning contracts developed by the facilitator (i.e. the teacher or andragogue) and the learner, thereby mutually establishing learning objectives, strategies, resources, as well as criteria and means of evaluation. Yet empirical research has examined an array of different techniques, such as discussion format and individualized programmed learning, under the presumption that these constitute andragogy as well. Another dilemma inherent to empirical research is how to resolve the issue of knowledge acquisition. Typically "effectiveness" of a teaching theory is measured by tests and grades, yet Knowles viewed tests and grades as an "anathema to andragogy" (Rachal, 2002).
Knowles introduced his framework for andragogy more than three decades ago, yet few studies have been attempted in the interim. Thus the question introduced by Cross in 1981 remains relevant today: "Whether andragogy can serve as the unifying theory of adult education remains to be seen. . .Does andragogy lead to researchable questions that will advance knowledge in adult education?" (pp.227-228). In 1993 Pratt noted, "We cannot say, with any confidence, that andragogy has been tested and found to be, as so many have hoped, either the basis for a theory of adult learning or a unifying concept of adult education" (p.21).
Rachal (2002) believes that the dearth of empirical studies, especially since 1997, is due to the absence of an operational definition. It has been suggested that Knowles' assumptions pertaining to andragogy are antiquated and inappropriate for contemporary society. His development of andragogy began during the 1960s and 1970s, a period defined by increased independence and self-direction, which are not necessarily as influential in today's society (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Nevertheless, the Social Sciences Citation Index notes that Knowles has had more journal citations over the last 6 years than any of the other authors in the field (Rachal, 2002).
Rachal (2002) postulates a number of reasons why an operational definition for andragogy remains elusive. He contends that the art of andragogy dominates the science of it. Further, the situational and contextual variables in each learning situation vary considerably requiring andragogy to be modified accordingly. Lastly, the application of andragogy is rarely identical to the ideal put forth by Knowles. This "paradigm devolution" can occur due to the facilitator lacking the so-called art of andragogy, inapplicability of one or more assumptions, and so forth. One consequence of paradigm devolution is that, even though the implementation falls short of the ideal, perhaps even contradicting it, the paradigm still retains its connection to andragogy. The result is that the empirical literature pertaining to andragogy includes myriad variations and devolutions, thus generating noncomparability and variance in studies (Rachal, 2002).
Study design is another major problem. Research has mixed adults and nonadults, lacked learner control, utilized paper-pencil achievement tests (as mentioned earlier, an anti-andragogical approach), and it is questionable as to whether learners were actually voluntary. As a means of eliminating discrepancies that have plagued previous studies, Rachal (2002) offers seven criteria (click here) that he believes are necessary to conduct empirical research on andragogy.
Rachal (2002) concedes that "researchers examining the effectiveness of andragogy will perpetually be stymied by its fluidity, even its amoeba-like formlessness. . .In that view, its art will forever be paramount, and its science forever elusive, if not fraudulent. . .If andragogy is to be science as well as art. . .it must coalesce into some form of roughly agreed-upon testable hypothesis" (pp 224-225). He concludes that an operational, criteria-based definition that incorporates the ideals of Knowles is necessary for researchers to design and conduct investigations.