How-To Tips

Health Literacy

How Adults Learn

Jun 1, 2024

All provider-patient encounters are opportunities for learning and teaching, even when not labeled as such. “Teachers” can be clinicians or anyone else responsible for health instruction. “Students” may be patients, caregivers, or others receiving this information. “Subject matter” refers to topics being taught. Education like this works best when teachers teach in ways that help learners learn.

This month’s Tip looks at how adults learn. It is based on Adult Learning Theory developed many years ago by Malcolm Knowles, PhD. Here are some of his key points along with my interpretation about how to apply these points in health teaching:

  • Adults are motivated to learn when topics address immediate needs and interests. Applying this to healthcare, adults are more likely to learn when the subject matter is of personal relevance. For instance, a person who just had hip surgery may be much more interested in learning how to accomplish daily tasks (like getting to the bathroom) rather than understanding all aspects of body mechanics.
  • Adults have a life-centered approach to learning. Teaching should be practical and address everyday challenges. This could mean presenting nutrition information in terms of familiar, affordable, available foods rather than instruction about more abstract concepts like “dietary management.”
  • Adults build on experience. Most adults learn best when new information is presented in context of what they already know. For instance, when discussing a new self-care procedure you might compare it to a task that the patient already accomplishes with success.
  • Adults are self-directed. This means that learners and teachers agree on topics to discuss rather than clinicians unilaterally deciding what patients need to know. As a patient, I do my part by telling clinicians my concerns at the beginning of each appointment. Then together we can plan how to make the most of our shared time.
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