Faculty Development

Incorporating Adult Learning Principles Into Design Of Educational Activities

Designing successful educational activities for adults requires understanding the characteristics of adult learners, what motivates them, and under what circumstances they learn best. Much of adult learning theory (“Andragogy”) has its basis in the work of American educator Malcolm Knowles.

Characteristics of adult learners Practical applications
  • Self-directed / internally motivated.
    An adult's decision to learn is typically voluntary as a means of improving skills and achieving growth. Adults aren't used to taking direction in education like children are; they want to have control over their learning and to discover things for themselves. They need to connect desired learning outcomes with their own goals and progress. If they feel their time is being wasted, they will become restless.
  • Let them have a say in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  • Provide multiple options of instruction to account for different backgrounds/types of experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for self-assessment.
  • Instructors should adopt role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer or evaluator.
  • If participation in the learning activity is not fully voluntary, need to convince why it is worth their while and how it will benefit them personally and ensure material is stimulating and thought-provoking.
  • Practical and results-oriented.
    Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. They dislike theory, are less open-minded, and have little tolerance for the promise of postponed application of knowledge.
  • Explain why they need to learn something and how it applies to them.
  • Put learning activities in the context of common tasks. Simulate real-world experiences or better yet, embed the education within real-world experiences.
  • Focus on “how-to.”
  • Use personal experience (including failure) as a resource.
    Adults need to learn experientially. They need opportunities to connect learning to past experiences and validate new concepts based on prior learning.
  • Encourage discussion and sharing among learners through “think-pair-share” activities.*
  • Offer opportunities to reflect on new learning to improve internalization and retention.
  • Create a learning community consisting of adults of similar life experience levels.
  • Approach learning as problem-solving.
    Orientation of learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness.
  • Focus more on the process and less on the subject.
  • Minimize lecture; maximize active learning techniques that allow for problem solving, (e.g., case study, role playing, simulations.)
  • Avoid memorization.
  • Have preconceived notions about education and subject matter.
    They have strong preferences for how they want to learn, even if it has not been effective for them in the past.
  • If using unfamiliar educational strategies, include purpose and provide clear expectations.
  • (Often) afraid to fall.
    Unlike children who may have fewer social filters and may be more willing to try new things, adult learners have something to lose. They have a strong need to maintain their self-esteem and may be hindered by fear of failure.
  • Create a safe, secure learning environment.
  • Consider “climate building” activities (e.g., ice breakers) before getting into content.
  • If learners are at different career stages will participate together, design carefully such that neither risks “losing face” in front of the other (e.g., if faculty, residents, and students are learning together, consider engaging faculty and residents by appealing to their desire to enhance their skills as teachers of the content to learners within their practice setting).
  • Scaffold learning into small, achievable goals that provide encouragement to keep moving forward.


Think-Pair-Share is an active, collaborative learning strategy in which learners work alone and then together to answer a question or solve a problem. Learners are asked to first think about their own ideas on a given topic or question and then to pair with a neighbor and share their thoughts/solutions.


Allyson Zazulia, M.D.

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