8 Steps to Motivate Adult Learners

Last Updated: 20 October 2021

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Motivation in any context is a deeply personal and subjective matter. It is an inner energy that pushes us towards a certain action. It strengthens our ambition, increases initiative, and gives direction, courage and persistence (Stanfield 2020).

This works exactly the same when it comes to professional development. The higher the levels of motivation, the greater the learning that takes place. Therefore, people are more likely to successfully engage in continuing education when they feel motivated (Turner 2018).

So how do we, as members of the learning and development team, motivate our staff to learn?

Understanding Motivation in the Healthcare Setting

‘Motivation in the work context can be defined as an individual's degree of willingness to exert and maintain an effort towards organisational goals. Health sector performance is critically dependent on worker motivation, with service quality, efficiency, and equity, all directly mediated by workers’ willingness to apply themselves to their tasks.’

(Franco, Bennet & Kanfer 2002)

There are a multitude of reasons as to why health workers may remain motivated and decide to stick it out at their current organisation. In general, a health worker will be motivated and express job satisfaction if they feel that they are effective at their job and are performing well.

Much of this comes back to the education that underpins their current base of knowledge. Having limited continuing professional development opportunities, or inadequate access to proper training while on the job, is a major theme among discontented health workers (HRH Global Resource Center n.d.).

Those who maintain their motivation in the fast-paced world of healthcare are often life-long learners. They feed their mind with knowledge - which goes a long way towards keeping motivated (Cooper 2015).

8 Ways to Motivate the Adult Learner

Eight factors that can affect the motivation of the adult learner are:

  1. Quality curriculum
  2. Relevance and pragmatism
  3. Interactivity and effective management
  4. Progressive assessment and timely feedback
  5. Self-directedness
  6. Conducive learning environment
  7. Academic advising
  8. Quality instruction.

(Turner 2018)

The rest of this article outlines how educators can understand and apply these factors to their staff development program in order to increase the motivation of their learners.

Quality Curriculum

In higher education, a curriculum refers to the program and content that is covered in a course of study. It always includes:

  • An outline of the up-to-date and evidence-based content
  • Learning objectives and desired outcomes
  • A summary of topics to be covered in the course
  • The modes and methods of education to be used.

The development of a curriculum occurs in the planning stage and should always precede instruction.

Educators can assume that their curriculum is of a high quality if the learning:

  • Is evidence-based and up-to-date
  • Is designed to meet the desired learning outcomes
  • Meets learners’ expectations
  • Meets the relevant professional standards.

Review our Guide to Mandatory Training for a refresher on best practice for delivering high quality training on an ongoing basis.

(Turner 2018)

Relevance and Pragmatism

In 2003, Wlodkowski emphasised that relevance is the guide that sparks the interest and increases the motivation of adult learners.

Learning experiences that are relevant and applicable have a much higher likelihood of capturing the attention of adult learners.

In order to create relevant and pragmatic learning experiences, educators should think about using teaching strategies that are more practical and hands-on and require problem-solving.

(Turner 2018)

Interactivity and Effective Management

Educators can also increase the motivation of their students by creating an interactive and inclusive culture.

It also offers learners a number of different methods by which they can increase their understanding on a topic, as opposed to traditional lecture-style instruction whereby the learner is solely reliant on the teacher to deliver information.

To create such a training environment, educators should:

  • Set aside time for discussion
  • Encourage learners to share their experiences with fellow learners
  • Facilitate small group learning activities.

(Turner 2018)

Progressive Assessment and Timely Feedback

Progressive assessment and timely feedback go hand-in-hand in motivating adult learners.

Progressive assessment can be both verbal and written and will empower learners to view and judge their own progress and development.

Timely feedback has a strong effect on learning and motivation. As much as possible, feedback should be immediate and precise.

Timely feedback and progressive assessment increase the motivation of learners and consequently, trigger further learning and improvement.

(Turner 2018)


In his theory of andragogy, Knowles concludes that adult learners are inherently self-directed and autonomous.

Taking into account adult learning principles, educators should actively encourage their staff to take responsibility for their own learning.

Engaging in self-directed learning allows students to be in control of their own learning and development. In return, adults may experience a sense of responsibility and accomplishment towards their learning.

(Turner 2018)

Conducive Learning Environment

Creating an environment that is conducive to learning is one of the most important considerations for an educator. However, it is often overlooked.

Any form of distraction, whether it be an uncomfortable room temperature or a disorganised or unpractical classroom setup, could negatively impact learners' concentration levels and demotivate them from the learning process.

To avoid this, educators should:

  • Ensure any classroom is at a comfortable temperature before commencing
  • Ensure the equipment and furniture is set up to suit the learning needs of the educational session
  • Minimise external distractions.

(Turner 2018)

Academic Advising Practices

Many learners rely heavily on advice from their educators and mentors to sustain their motivation to engage in continuing professional education.

Health workers will often encounter situations for which they are underprepared. Their capacity to debrief and receive guidance from their educator may greatly impact their decision to pursue further education on how to better handle such a given situation.

Without the capacity to receive solid, reliable advice, learners may experience unnecessary delays in updating key knowledge and skills that will consequently affect their ongoing motivation to learn.

As an educator, you should provide advice that is:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Reliable.

(Turner 2018)

Quality Instruction

We are motivated by quality instructional delivery. As a result, health workers will often seek out training that is provided by the highest quality and most experienced educators.

Educators who have experience in a clinical setting and who thus understand its pressures and challenges are often more relatable and will generally provide high-quality instruction.

However, there are a number of other factors that also contribute to quality instruction.

To this end, educators should ensure that:

  • Learning is highly relevant to learning needs
  • Information is current and evidence-based
  • Educator displays embracing personality attributes that empowers learners
  • The session is planned and organised.

(Turner 2018)


The eight factors described above have the potential to motivate learners to actively engage in and pursue continuing education.

As educators, we should attempt to understand and implement them within our staff development programs and educational sessions.

  • Beck, R. C. 2004, Motivation: Theories and principles (5th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Boud, D. & Falchikov, N. (Eds.). 2007, Rethinking assessment in higher education: Learning for the longer term. New York: Routledge.
  • Cooper, J. 2015, 'Self Motivation in Nursing', Ausmed, 29 November, viewed 20 October 2021,
  • Galbraith, M. W. 1990, Attributes and skills of an adult educator. In M. W. Galbraith (Ed.). Adult learning methods (pp. 3-22). Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Franco, Bennet & Kanfer 2002, Health sector reform and public sector health worker motivation: a conceptual framework, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 54, Issue 8, 2002, Pages 1255-1266, ISSN 0277-9536,
  • Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press, 1970, 1980.
  • McMillan, J. H. & Forsyth, D. R. 1991, What theories of motivation say about why learners learn. In R. J. Menges & M. D. Svinicki (Eds.). College teaching: From theory to practice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 45, 39-52.
  • Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, J. L. 2008, Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Sogunro, O. A., 2014, Motivating Factors for Adult Learners in Higher Education.
  • Stanfield, J. 2020, 'Human Behaviour and Motivation (Part One)', Ausmed, 27 February, viewed 20 October 2021,
  • Thorkildsen, T. A. 2002, Motivation and the struggle to learn: Responding to fractured lie. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Turner, D. 2018, '8 Ways to Motivate Adult Learners', Ausmed, 21 April, viewed 20 October 2021,
  • Wlodkowski, R. J. 2003, Fostering motivation in professional development programs. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 98, 39-47.

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