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Application of Adult Learning Theory in Nursing Education and Staff Development

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

As nurse educators we cannot teach students how to respond to every individual situation, however, we can prepare them to develop the skills necessary to successively adapt and respond by embracing Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory. Effective adult education should involve a combination of active, authentic, applied, and experiential learning experiences. Adult learners frequently take self-directed responsibility in their learning, so opportunities for them to be engaged and supported should continuously be promoted.


According to Malcolm Knowles' theory, adult learners often carry enhanced readiness to learn and prefer to be presented with information that encourages the use of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. This population is typically motivated from within to succeed, therefore, opportunities to do so by applying themselves to navigate diverse learning experiences is paramount to success. As educators we can also remember that adult learners need to be engaged in a learning atmosphere that enables them to assume responsibility for themselves and to take ownership in their experiences. Thus, adult learners prefer to be engaged in student-centered learning. When functioning in adult learning environments, educators must take the initiative to include andragogy, adult learning theory, when building comprehensive models of adult learning.


Core Assumptions:

  • Self-Concept

  • Adult Learning Experience

  • Readiness to Learn

  • Orientation to Learning

  • Motivation to Learn


Specific theoretical and practical approaches that are problem-centered rather than content-oriented serve to establish targeted experiences that factor the specific learner population in guiding the development and facilitation of content. Keep in mind, this theory is applicable to nursing education in arenas from class to floor, and can be included to promote growth at the academic and clinical levels.



Pause, Reflect, and Plan:

In considering andragogy, where do my current practices fall? Do they align with these principles or do they fall somewhere outside of this? In what ways can I develop what I am currently working with to promote more effective experiences? Remember, we need not feel stuck in our current modes of delivery or bounds of experience, we can dapple outside of our comfort zones to push from suitable to incredible! Adult learning should build upon what learners have already developed in the past, and it is within the educator's role to facilitate that.

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