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.
    Adults want to have control over their learning and to discover things for themselves.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Focus on “how-to.”
  • Use personal experience (including failure) as a resource.
    Adults need to learn experientially. They tend to link past experiences to new ones and validate new concepts based on prior learning.
  • Encourage discussion and sharing among learners through “think-pair-share” activities*
  • Create a learning community consisting of adults of similar life experience levels.
  • Internally motivated.
    An adult’s decision to learn is typically voluntary as a means of improving skills and achieving growth. If participation in the learning activity is not fully voluntary, they need to be convinced why it is worth their while and how they will benefit personally. If they feel their time is being wasted, they become restless.
  • Explain why they need to learn something and how it applies to them.
  • Provide stimulating/thought-provoking material.
  • Approach learning as problem-solving.
    Orientation of learning shifts from one of subjectcenteredness 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.
  • Self-esteem.
    Adult learners have something to lose. They have a strong need to maintain their self-esteem.
  • Create a safe, secure learning environment.
  • Consider “climate building” activities (e.g., ice breakers) before getting into content.
  • If learners at different career stages (e.g., residents, faculty) will participate together, design carefully such that neither risks “losing face” in front of the other.


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