HealthMarch 16, 2020

Adult learners: Challenges and strategies

The challenges of adult learners can be multifaceted, and the teaching strategies required to retain and engage them may differ from the traditional student.

Pam Embler, MSN, PhD, RN

Colleges and universities across the country are experiencing a recent and continued demographic shift with more adult learners in the classroom. Online learning is experiencing a shift as well - no longer is it the exception, online learning is an expectation for adult learners.

Regardless of where faculty encounter the adult learner, the challenges are multifaceted, and the strategies required to retain and engage them differ from the traditional student.

Adult learners actively seek knowledge, they are seriously goal oriented, self-directed and motivated. They bring with them life experience, and most importantly they do not just want to know something, they want to know why it is important to them.

Andragogy (Knowles, 1978), is the method and practice for teaching adult learners and serves as a guide to assist faculty in planning learning activities and strategies for adult learners. Andragogy assists faculty in meeting the needs and goals of adult learners. Andragogy is a circular and collaborative learning/teaching style. Delivery methods congruent with principles and assumptions of andragogy include self-directed learning models which encourage self-direction in learning.

Staged self-directed learning model [SSDL]

This model of instruction requires the educator to be cognizant of the learner's current stage or state of learning. Faculty act as facilitators and coaches. Grow (1991) identified four stages of self-directed learning. Knowing the student in this way allows faculty to individualize teaching strategies which facilitate increasing learner self-direction. Situational experiences are also important to this process.

Stage 1 - The learner is dependent. The adult learner in this stage needs faculty to serve in a role of authority and as coach. The adult learner benefits from informational lectures that include immediate assessments of understanding and comprehension. In this stage, the focus and goal is on overcoming deficiencies in knowledge and skill as well as any resistance learning.

Stage 2 - The learner is interested. In stage two, the adult learner requires faculty to serve as a motivator and as a guide. During lecture, faculty can reinforce student self-motivation by incorporating periods of discussion. The adult learner benefits from goal setting and learning strategies that are more collaborative in nature.

Stage 3 - The learner is involved. Faculty during this stage act as a facilitator. Together with the student, faculty engage in the discussion as an equal. Learning strategies during this stage might include classroom seminar and group projects.

Stage 4 - The learner is self-directed. In this final stage, faculty move the student to roles of consultant and delegator. Adult learners practicing in this stage are involved in internships and dissertation. Their work is mostly self-motivated, individual, and might involve self-directed study groups.

As faculty, we strive to engage, encourage and develop students who think critically and proactively to become valuable contributors to their communities and society. In order to teach students, we need to know our student to reach our students.


Grow, G.O.(1991). Teaching learners to be self-directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(3), 125-141.

Knowles, M. (1978). Andragogy: Adult learning theory in perspective. Community College Review, 5(3), 9-20

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