Characteristics of Adult Learners in relation to patient education

The characteristics of adult learners according to Knowles (1980) as stated by Merriam & Bierema (2014) are that “adults are autonomous, self-directed, and more often than not bring a wealth of knowledge based on past experiences”. Adult learners also tend to be “goal oriented, have the need to be shown respect and do better when they believe the education to be relevant and practical in nature” according to Knowles (1970) as stated by Russell, S.S.(2006) page 350.   Adults also learn best when they are “convinced of the need for knowing the information” Russell, S.S., (2006) pg 349.

In contrast to this, Pedagogy or one more directed at children is more often focussed specifically on a “predetermined content that has been organized, delivered and evaluated by the teacher” (p 47)  according to Merriam & Bierema (2014).

The adult learner often seeks education with a goal in mind. Key to the adult learner is the need to be able to relate to the education offered, by basing it on previous experiences. A great example of this is patient health education. Adults seeking health education are often highly motivated when it relates to themselves, their loved one, and their quality of life.

A challenge with the adult patient teaching environment is that it is often done in a hurry, at time of discharge, and at the patient bedside in a noisy room with other patients. Other barriers to learning can include “lack of confidence on part of the instructor, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems and a lack of motivation on behalf of the patient” according to Russell,  (2006) page 352. Attempting to teach someone crucial health information when the patient is stressed, in pain or sleep deprived is often very unsuccessful.

The health care provider needs to “redirect and focus their energies on assessing individual learning styles, motivation of the patient and relative past experiences to create a level of engagement and willingness of the patient to apply the learning” according to Russell (2006) page 352.  Key to successful patient education is a combination of visual such as handouts, auditory such as in person and kinesthetic such as hands on demonstrations” states Russell (2006) page 351.

Merriam, S., & Bierema, L., (2013), Adult Learning; Linking Theory and Practice,

San Francisco, Jossey-Bass


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