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What information should I know about adult learners when creating my residency program?


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In the late 1960s, Malcolm Knowles’ research identified that adults do not learn in the same way that children do. For centuries, teachers had been instructing children in school, and had learned quite a bit about some of the best ways for children to learn new knowledge. Unfortunately, in the mid 20th century, as more adults advanced their formal education, the academic world still used the same child-oriented methods and theories to teach them. Knowles was able to change all that by explaining that:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They are able to identify their own learning gaps and often take the initiative to fill those gaps on their own. In contrast to children, adults “know what they don’t know” and will actively seek out information, teachers, and/or resources that will get them what they want to know.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge. Adults have a wealth of prior experience that children do not, and they use this prior life experience as a foundation for learning new things. Adults always seem to adopt new pieces of knowledge by putting them in the same mental category as other similar pieces of knowledge that are directly tied to specific experiences or memories they have. In other words, they learn new things by putting them in context with old things they already know. Adult learners also draw insight from their own experiences, and they want their experiences to be appreciated by the educator.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. Because their autonomous nature motivates them to seek out their own learning, by the time adults step into a learning situation, they already have a good idea of what they want to get out of it. They want to accomplish some kind of goal in their life, and they participate in learning because they know how the learning will help them reach that goal.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. Again, adults often know what they want to get out of a learning experience, and they want a high degree of applicability to their life’s work. They get frustrated or perturbed if they are required to participate in a learning experience that “doesn’t apply to them.”
  • Adults are practical. A desire for relevance drives adults to identifying the practical uses for the learning content being presented to them. They want to use the learning right away, and they favor the “nuts and bolts” of a topic more than the abstract theoretical foundations that it is derived from.

- Jim Hansen, MSN, RN-BC

(Sept. 2012)