Heutagogy is Everywhere

Table of Contents

Left image: How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot by John Muir (1971). Source: Amazon.com

1. Observation

This ID begins with an observation. Heutagogy is everywhere. I think what we call self-directed learning, otherwise known as D.I.Y., has been around a lot longer than our learning theories about it have. And that’s exactly right for how theories of anything work. They normally come after new practices begin to emerge. (That said, as I argue below, there is definitely something to be said for how the rise of the Internet and mediated culture has proliferated heutagogy.) Theories of learning are ways of thinking about how we learn based on what we know, what we’ve experienced and what goes on in the world (about how we learn). The practices that inform these theories often precede the theories or concepts themselves (because these epistemologies are based on practices of how we are actually learning—and here’s some unsolicited advice: if you are a theorist, stay close to the practices). 

Heutagogy, as a theory of learning, has a lot of relevance for teaching, today, especially with the rise of the internet and networked media. Students know more because of our networked culture. This example uses media and cinema studies, among much else, to provide a heutagogical learning experience. 

2. The Learner

The learner for this demo is an undergraduate college student in a junior level (i.e. upper division) humanities course called Images of Eroticism

Play Video

Melodrama genre analysis. Video above: "Introducing the Prison Iconography in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955)" by the author. (Visuals with music from the film.)

3. The Challenge

I teach a lot of big ideas. One thing to do when you teach big ideas is to give students something a bit easier, something they already know about, to grab onto so they can survive the really big and challenging ideas you are introducing them to throughout a course. And in one of my most infamous and complex courses, I use genre theory as a way to do this.

Genre analysis typically looks at how genre films make use of cinematic conventions or tropes—those scenes you have seen so many times before, in so many different ways, that you expect to see them again and again depending on the type or genre of film (western, zombie, porn, action, melodrama, etc.). Genre films reflect, and sometimes critique, social conventions, norms, and values. That means that they both employ cinematic conventions while also teaching us about social conventions. (It’s a pretty neat trick.)

We live in a media saturated world where my students already know about “foreshadowing” and all kinds of things that happen within genre conventions. The result is that everyone is usually able to grab onto something related to genre analysis, even in my more difficult courses. (This was not true just 10-15 years ago. It’s something that our networked, mediated, society has made possible.)

3. The Learning Experience


Any kind of genre film, artwork, video, literature, music, work of expression that you choose in the genre we are studying (I’m trying to be discrete for this ID demo).

This could be:

  • A work of expression that has been censored.
  • Something that falls within any genre or form.
  • This can include short clips from, for example, those famous websites everyone knows.
  • Webcams.
  • This can be artwork.
  • This can be literature.
  • This can be music.
  • This work can be a work of expression from any other era or from the present.
  • This work can be short or long (it does not have to be a feature film).

Write a substantive forum post analyzing the work you have chosen to write about based on your research. This should be two substantive paragraphs and show that you have carefully looked at, studied and thought about the form you have chosen.

Some sample questions to get your started (you don’t have to use these questions in your work, they are just there for you for guidance):

  • How does this work reflect social norms and values (e.g. gender, sex, race, class, etc.)?
  • How does this work reflect genre forms?
  • How does this work reflect common tropes in forms of expression?

You do not have to post the videos you are watching or provide links. (Though you may provide a link if you want.) This allows you to include some element of description as part of your analysis (a common feature of critical writing on media/film). Feel free to be creative in this exercise. The point is not so much to classify and name these forms, but rather to do the work of genre analysis: that is, to look at how these works of expression reflect social norms and values and what they teach us about ourselves, as well as to analyze them as formal works of expression (e.g. to think about how the formal properties of the work relate to its meaning).

You will be able to incorporate this forum assignment into part of your final essay.

Video above: Lucky Wheels DIY Moto Garage, downtown L.A.

4. Assessment: Andragogy and Heutagogy.

As University faculty, we normally don’t get to see the end result of our work. Students don’t always know what they’ve learned until months or even a year (or more) after they’ve taken a particular course. It’s none of my business what my students do with what I teach them. That’s entirely up to them (they get to choose what it means to them and/or how they incorporate what I teach them into their lives).

Every graduate degree I have ever gotten has been heutagogical because you always have to find your own way and decide how you are going to make the structure of what has been given to you work for you

Instructional design is clearly a heutagogical profession because you have to learn how to teach your learner(s) and you have to do it yourself pretty quickly (sometimes in collaboration with teams, sometimes with a client, but it’s very much a complex D.I.Y. affair—albeit one with a lot of great theories and methods).

Dr. Donohue is responsible for teaching us the basics of good instructional theory. What we do with that is entirely up to us. It can’t be up to her.

So, this assignment was an effort to give my students ownership of their work in my class. It’s not merely self-testing and self-checking. It’s work that is fundamentally something for them and not me (I still, of course, test them on the really big ideas, but this is something for them.)

This learning experience was first implemented in a fully online version of this course. When it was reviewed for QLT, the reviewer made slightly disparaging remarks about the quality of the student forum posts (the reviewer did NOT read my learners later, outstanding, final papers, which came directly out of these initial forum posts). The peer-reviewer comment about the forum posts was something like, “I read them and they weren’t that great.” I think, with tremendous respect to the peer-reviewer, the comment misses the point of this assignment. To quote a commercial: “that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works.” It’s not for me. It’s not for the reviewer. It’s for the students. Sometimes you have to give the learner the freedom to teach themselves what they have learned beyond you. When you do this, the outcome, as it was in this case, is not something you have control over. It’s a final step where they’ve gone from learning from someone else to learning from, and for, themselves.

It’s definitely blended between andragogy and heutagogy because I am obviously facilitating and giving them the opportunity to do this. I’m providing a shell and a space for them to do this exercise. 

This learning experience was inspired by a negative comment a student made about the in-person version of this course several years ago. She said she couldn’t use anything I had taught her because she didn’t watch narrative art films about the subject matter, the genre, that this course was dealing with. She watched shorter “films” or clips of films that, um, don’t usually have plots in them. (You can use your imagination to figure out what genre of films these are.) 

My first thought was: “it’s called extrapolation.” My second thought was: “fair enough.” That’s a completely valid point. So, my problem became: how can I creatively incorporate this students’ critique, this seemingly negative comment, into my teaching? And that’s how this assignment was born.

Listening to your students and assessing your teaching based on open ended, non-judgmental discussions with them is one of the best ways to learn how to be a better teacher. Because your students are the ones teaching you how to teach them and, ultimately, how to be a better teacher.


Hase, Stewart., & Kenyon, Chris. (2000). From Andragogy to Heutagogy. [PDF file]. Retrieved from iLearn for ITEC 800.