The Relationship Between Learning and Teaching


Published: 19 September 2017

Throughout my graduate education, I read extensively on Adult Learning Theory that was developed by Malcolm Knowles (1980).

I was particularly drawn to Knowles and his theory of andragogy because my nursing education began when I was 17-years old. I noticed that as I matured, my learning style and habits changed dramatically.

Knowles defined the process of adult learning as andragogy, and it is based upon five assumptions:

  1. The first assumption is that adult learners transform from being dependent beings to self-directed and motivated thinkers. This transformation occurs as the adult learner matures and becomes motivated by initiating their own learning.
  2. The second assumption is based upon the influences that life experiences have on the adult learner. Knowles theorised that adults utilise their 'reserve' of past experiences in learning to help them to assimilate new information.
  3. The third assumption relates to the timing of learning activities. Younger learners may not have reached all of their developmental milestones and that may pose a barrier to new learning.
  4. The fourth assumption of adult learning theory is that it is problem-centred versus topic-centred. For instance, I may have no need to learn how to operate a particular 'smart-pump' in an ambulatory clinic, however, that skill may be important in six months when I apply for a transfer to the intensive care unit.
  5. The fifth and final assumption of adult learning theory is that adults are internal rather than externally-motivated learners. A nurse with 30 or more years of clinical practice experience may seek advanced certification simply for personal satisfaction, even if achieving that certification does not impact her nursing position or salary.
The Relationship Between Learning and Teaching

In 2009 when I entered my doctoral program, I was convinced that I would be ahead of the curve because of my familiarity with adult learning; until I logged on to my first course.

The course was titled 'Scholarly Learning in Doctoral Education'. The first assignment required that all learners log on to, and complete, The VARK Questionnaire.

The questionnaire's purpose is to assess how an adult best learns. I must admit, I experienced an immediate bias at the professor’s requirement that students take the time to complete a generic, publicly available survey. I was greatly mistaken!

Upon completion of the survey I received my scores, which indicated that I am primarily a kinesthetic learner. Although I knew a great deal about adult learning theory, I had not even considered that learning style can greatly impact a person’s ability to learn or assimilate new information.

Throughout the following week, my colleagues and I shared our scores within the course discussion forum and the Professor reminded each of us that competence in theory does not guarantee that you will be a successful educator. Nurse educators must adapt their teaching methods to meet every learner’s needs.

Upon reviewing my own scores from the VARK it was clear to me that although I have some visual learning strength, my auditory learning abilities are almost nonexistent! It suddenly occurred to me that I have engaged in teaching patients, students, and family members for almost four decades and never had I asked them how they best learn! I wondered if many of my patients were aware of their learning style. This was yet another 'light-bulb' moment in my nursing career!

Since that time, I have assigned a learner survey to every group of nurses at the start of every seminar that I host.  It is vitally important that our patients, families and colleagues feel empowered by opportunities for learning, and not defeated. For example, a newly diagnosed patient with type II diabetes who has a kinesthetic learner profile should have a glucometer to hold and practice with during every learning session, in order to assimilate the information.

So, I challenge you: are you aware of how you best learn? What are your strengths and how could a nurse educator capitalise on your strengths as a learner? I encourage you to bring this issue to your staff meetings and complete your own learner inventory. There are a multitude of tools available online.

Try it Yourself...

The next step in your learning will be to select, along with your colleagues, a health problem that is common to the patient population that you serve (diabetes, asthma, heart disease, or obesity). Divide your staff into four groups: visual, aural, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.

Each group should develop a teaching program on your chosen topic using the learning style that you have selected. Share, your strategies with each other and then learn and celebrate your success as a team for your innovation and dedication to teaching and learning!

  • Knowles, MS 1980, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy (Rev. and Updated Ed.). Wilton, Conn. Chicago: Association Press; Follet Pub. Co.