What are adult learning principles?  What does it mean to apply “adult learning principles” to one’s teaching?  Are you already doing it? If you don’t know the answers to these questions I invite you to keep reading.  

Research that looks into how pre-adults (pedagogy) and adults (andragogy) learn shows that if you apply adult learning principles, you can be a more effective teacher.

Adult education literature supports the idea that teaching adults should be approached in a different way than teaching children and adolescents (pre-adults). Many aspects of effective teaching apply to all age groups, and current theory sees the two processes as a continuum with pedagogy on one end and andragogy on the other. However, adults have had more life experiences and in many ways are differently motivated than children. 

Malcolm Knowles, who is considered the father of adult learning theory, coined the term andragogy to describe the study of adult learning.  Adults are more self-directed in their learning and have a greater need to know why they should learn something. They have set habits and strong tastes. They may have prejudices, which are detrimental to the learning environment. They want a choice in what they learn. These characteristics of adult learners can be addressed in the learning environment. Understanding the principles of adult learning can help you become a better facilitator of learning.

Everyone seems to be drawn to “top ten” lists, so here are ten principles of adult learning:

  1. Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge.  Acknowledging adults’ understanding and experiences validates them as competent and capable learners. It is important that the facilitator of adult learning help adult students see the connections between earlier learning experiences and new information. Thus, teachers of adults should begin educational sessions by finding out what the adults already know about the topic. For example, knowing whether or not a group of students has an understanding of interstitial lung diseases would be helpful to the radiology teacher who plans to show the students radiologic examples of the diseases. A student with no fundamental knowledge of such diseases, who may be unfamiliar with the disease names, would have no current knowledge to tie the radiologic images to.  Although this information is ideally obtained prior to the educational event, when this is not practical, the audience can be quizzed at the beginning of the session.
  2. Adults are autonomous and self-directed.  Knowles promoted the concept of self-directed learning. He felt that adults should create personal learning objectives that would allow them to set individual goals and to apply the new learning in practical ways. Self-initiated learning is lasting and pervasive. It is most effective when adults can proceed at their own pace, so independent study should be encouraged. Independent study can be facilitated by providing learners with references and supplementary educational resources, such as educational videos and handouts. 
  3. Adults are goal-oriented.  They like to know how the educational activity will help them reach their goals. This is why you should explicitly state your objectives at the beginning of every presentation. For example, a learner may attend a lecture on high-resolution computed tomography (HRCT) of the chest, with a goal to understand the different patterns of disease seen on CT scans. At the beginning of the presentation, you would outline several patterns that will be discussed and contrasted with each other, making it clear to the learner how the lecture will help him or her understand patterns of disease on CT scans in a way that will be applicable to his or her practice. 
  4. Adults are relevancy-oriented and practical.  Learning should be applicable to the learner’s work or other responsibilities valued by the learner. In other words, adults want to know “what’s in it for me” (WIFM). They want content that can be applied to real-life situations. Adults tend to be problem-centered and learn best through practical applications of what they have learned. Techniques that can be used to facilitate making content relevant and based on learner needs are problem-solving activities, anticipating problems in the application of the new ideas to the learner’s setting and offering suggestions, and showing real-life cases to link theory to practice.
  5. Adults (all learners) need to be respected. Learning takes place in an environment that is considered “safe” by the learner- one in which the learner feels he or she can be successful. Respectful learning environments are those in which all opinions are valued. Adults should participate voluntarily. In a true learning community, all participants, including the instructor, share ideas and learn from each other. As the instructor, you are a facilitator or guide rather than the only one with knowledge. Learners respond to personal interaction, such as when you call them by name and listen to their questions and viewpoints. They respond positively to constructive feedback and your respect for their time and educational priorities.  
  6. Adults are motivated to learn by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  What motivates radiologists to learn?  They want to build social relationships, fulfill licensing or certification requirements, improve their ability to serve mankind, advance professionally (e.g., by getting a raise or promotion), escape from the routines of home or work, and learn for the sake of learning. You can leverage learner motivation to make your teaching relevant.  An obvious example of this is how you might use case-based teaching to prepare trainees or practicing radiologists for certification exams.
  7. Adults learn best when they are active participants in the learning process. Teaching is not something that should be done to the learner. The learner should be actively involved in the learning process as this enhances retention of new concepts. Active learning is student-centered (e.g., not a “talking head” lecture), encourages sharing of experiences and questions, and weaves discussion sections with exercises that require learners to practice a skill or apply knowledge. Such experiential learning (as described by Carl Rogers) that is personal, self initiated, and evaluated by the learner leads to long-lasting retention of knowledge.
  8. Not all adults learn the same way. Individual learning styles are influenced by personality, intelligence, education, experiences, culture, and sensory and cognitive preferences. Methods to accommodate different learning styles can include small- and large-group discussion, role-playing, lecturing, case studies, games, questioning, and optimal use of technology. For decades, educators have quoted literature touting that learners retain 10% of what is read, 20% of what is heard, 30% of what is seen (demonstration), 50% of what is seen and heard (discussion), 70% of what is said (practice), and 90% of what is said while doing (teach others, immediate use). These numbers have been debunked but the general principle still holds true that learning is most effective when different learning styles are used and learners are actively engaged.
  9. Adults learn more effectively when given timely and appropriate feedback and reinforcement of learning. Providing timely feedback optimizes learning and mastery of content and skills. Constructive feedback helps learners correct errors and reinforces good behaviors. As the name implies, positive reinforcement is “good” and reinforces “good” (or positive) behavior. Negative reinforcement is useful in trying to change modes of behavior. The result of negative reinforcement is extinction—that is, the instructor uses negative reinforcement until the “bad” behavior disappears or becomes extinct. Feedback is most effective when it is constructive, frequent, and regular and comes from self, peers, and instructors.
  10. Adults learn better in an environment that is informal and personal. It has been suggested that people do not learn from experience, but rather they learn from reflecting on experience.  Reflective learning is a way of allowing learners to step back from their learning experience, helping them to develop critical thinking skills and connect previous learning experiences. Writing in reflective journals is one way to track changes in behavior or actions as a result of new learning and to keep track of how those changes affect one’s practice over time. 

In summary, adults learn best when:

  • New knowledge is built on current knowledge
  • Learning is self-initiated
  • Learning helps meet personal goals
  • Learning solves problems
  • They feel comfortable in the learning environment
  • They are motivated to learn
  • They are active participants
  • They can use their preferred learning styles
  • They reflect on their learning
  • Constructive, regular, and frequent feedback is provided

The best way to learn is to teach.

Teach/Learn Image from Dvir Yitzchaki (@divirtzwastaken) tweeted 8-18-19  

Every good post deserves a Collinsism, so here it is:  The best way to learn is to teach.  Put another way -teaching is learning twice.  All of the adult learning principles described can be wrapped up in one activity: teaching.  Nothing in my career has been more rewarding than the positive changes I’ve made in the lives of the students I’ve taught both formally and informally.  Most rewarding of all is to hear that someone is a better teacher because of something I taught them.  

One last note:  thank you to all the teachers who made a difference in my life.