Motivating Adult Learners

Motivating adult learners requires careful thought and planning. John Keller devised the ARCS Model of Motivational Design, which takes into account the characteristics of adult learners. Two articles by E-Learning Industry and Poulsen, Lam, Cisneros and Trust outline the components of ARCS, as well as practical applications for instructors. The acronym ARCS stands for the four areas of Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction that are expanded below:


Learners are motivated when their interest is piqued in the areas of perceptual arousal (surprise and uncertainty), inquiry arousal (challenges and problems to solve) and variability (variety). Some teaching methods to grab attention in these areas include:

  • using a variety of media, teaching methods and presentation styles
  • incorporating humour
  • presenting conflicting opinions that can be discussed
  • stimulating critical thinking with interesting questions
  • using real-life examples that learners may relate to
  • using active learning activities (hands-on learning, role-playing, etc.)


Learners are motivated when they can relate to the topics and are familiar with the language used. Keller used the techniques of motive matching (student reasons for taking course), familiarity (building on learners’ own knowledge and experience) and goal-orientation (how the course is useful) to establish relevance. Instructional strategies using these include:

  • Explain how skills or knowledge will help learners in the present as well as in the future
  • Draw connections between learners’ existing knowledge and the course content
  • Bring in an expert or role model related to the content
  • Explore the reasons each learner is taking the course and teach to these goals
  • Let the learners choose what they explore and the instructional strategies that are used


Learners that believe they will succeed are more motivated. This can be achieved by giving learners more control, clearly communicating objectives and giving feedback. Some examples of this are:

  • At the start of the course, clearly outline the evaluation criteria and what is needed for success
  • Give lots of positive and constructive feedback
  • Create opportunities for learners to be successful
  • Allow learners control over some of the learning activities
  • Nurture self-growth with small steps and visible progress


Learners are motivated if they get a sense of satisfaction from rewards and reinforcement. Rewards can be intrinsic (from within the learner) or extrinsic (from the instructor or classmates). Some methods to incorporate this are:

  • Provide opportunities to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Give praise and rewards
  • Give positive feedback
  • Make sure standards are consistent throughout the course

How will this impact my own teaching?

There are several things from the ARCS model that I would like to incorporate into my own teaching. To grab learners’ attention, I believe in using a variety of activities and teaching methods to keep things interesting. As a clinical instructor, this would involve group discussions, videos, demonstrations, as well as more traditional power points on occasion. As nursing education is very practical by nature, real-life examples of clinical issues and hands-on practice with patients are naturally part of the instruction. I like the idea of using conflicting viewpoints to stimulate interest, such as discussing the controversial issue over whether a client should get a feeding tube or not. To keep the learning active on a potentially dry topic such as wound care, I would use hands-on games with wound care products and pictures of various wounds.

To make the instruction relevant, I would get to know the specific nursing area that each student is interested in. Then, I could pair them with a ride-along nurse for that specific area, who might serve as a role model. I would give a choice of options for an assignment based on this interest, such as choosing between palliative care or chronic disease management for an essay. Another way to make things relevant is to explain the importance of paying attention to certain information, such as the possible consequences to the patient when medication is given incorrectly.

In order to instil confidence and satisfaction, I would clearly outline at the start of the term what is required for success. When evaluating a skill, I would give them a skills checklist ahead of time, so they know each step that is necessary. Positive and frequent constructive feedback is important, such as telling a learner that they’ve really improved their time-management on the hospital ward. As it is important that nurses become comfortable being responsible for their own learning, I would encourage them to practice taking ownership of skills they need to practice more often. I could have each learner make up a list of skills they wish to work on during the clinical rotation.



Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Creating a positive learning environment first requires knowledge of the characteristics of adult learners and how they are different from children. This allows an atmosphere of respect to be cultivated, and allows a balance between learners feeling safe and challenged (see Bright Hub). This article by Susan Imel states that three components of a positive learning environment are trust, open communication and shared learning experiences. It outlines several helpful points:

  • Acknowledging that adult learners bring a wealth of knowledge and experience is important
  • Set the tone in the first few minutes of class about it being a safe and respectful space.
  • With the help of the learners, setting clear goals and expectations at the start is essential.
  • Group discussions and group work that allow people to share ideas are useful.
  • Feedback should be given respectfully and not in public.
  • Information and assignments should be relevant and interesting to the learners, allowing them to draw on previous knowledge.

TrainerHub adds a few other ideas for a positive learning environment:

  • Use a positive attitude
  • Teach topics that are interesting to you, as your passion will come through.
  • Focus on the learner. Get to know their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Use learning circles to build support and collaboration among learners.
  • Appeal to the senses through visuals, sounds, colour and hands-on experiences.

Below is a video with tips from experienced teachers on creating a positive learning environment:

Another tool that creates a positive classroom is humour. According to this article by Wazner, properly used humour creates a better relationship between the instructor and learner, allows for more effective learning, controls stress and also makes the learner happier. Students rate classes and teachers that use humour as more memorial and influential. However, this article also says that poorly used humour has a negative effect on learning. Poorly used humour includes jokes unrelated to the material, sexual jokes, jokes picking on a student, etc. This article also found that those to which humour does not come naturally should think twice about forcing humour into their instruction.

These ideas will influence my own teaching in several ways. Many of these ideas, such as setting the tone at the beginning  and creating a respectful space to learn, seem like methods I already use and probably have picked up on from previous positive learning environments. However, it is always beneficial to be reminded to purposefully include them. I like the idea of setting clear goals and expectations, as it always made me personally less anxious as a learner. In my own instruction, I will ask learners what their goals are and list them along side my own instructor goals at the beginning of class. I also appreciate the idea of collaborative learning and will try to include group work or discussion each day.

In terms of humour, I fell pressure to include more humour in my instruction, though this is not my natural talent. It is comforting to read the study that says it is better if I do not force humour and just use the natural (albeit infrequent) opportunities when the arise.

Skype Call with my Partner

Yesterday, Kerin and I had a skype call to discuss our blog posts so far (see kerinnurseblog). All of our posts seem to agree with each other. We first talked about trends in nursing, as we are both registered nurses. Kerin had two blog posts regarding the need for awareness around the multicultural nature of our patients and the effect of the nursing shortage on patient care. I agreed that in my own job as a community health nurse, I encounter the need for translators and cultural sensitivity daily. Both Kerin and I also see that there is a shortage of nurses and we are constantly being asked to do more with less. My own post regarding the push for less home visits from nurses highlighted this.

We then discussed the our posts about trends in adult education. Kerin’s post was about the trend towards learners collaborating . She saw this in her teaching position as an IV nurse educator and also in the trend of using online courses and technology to bring geographically apart learners together. We thought this worked well with my own post about MOOCs making education more accessible. Kerin expressed concern over online courses being difficult as there is minimal one-on-one interaction. We agreed that in nursing in particular, learning from immersion in the practical with colleagues and face to face learning is crucial. Kerin talked about how her nursing education in South Africa was very different from the training today. We discussed how there is too much emphasis on theory when more practical learning is needed for new nurses.

We also touched on the post about adult learners’ traits. We agreed that our entries were similar.



Characteristics of Adult Learners

Prior to this course, I would have pictured “learners” as children and the traits that come with them. However, an article on adult learners outlines the some characteristics that are different when considering adults instead of children. Many of these differences come from adults having gained more life experience and being at a different life stage than school-aged individuals. These listed traits are based on the assumptions and principles described by Knowles in his 1984 research on this topic and summarised by this website. These include a need for:

  •  autonomy and control in the learning process, as well as self-direction
  •  material to be goal-oriented and practical; holding clearly seen value for the learner
  • respect and to be treated as equal
  • learning to be active rather than passive
  • learning to be problem rather than subject oriented

As well, adult learners often:

  • bring a wealth of knowledge from which to draw in their learning
  • can have baggage from negative life experiences or rigid thinking that hold back learning
  • have responsibilities other than learning, such as jobs and children
  • are motivated from within to learn
  • come from varied experiences and backgrounds

These of course are generalizations that differ from person to person. This article also suggests that these traits are based on western educated learners and do not always apply across different cultures. It highlights that in some classrooms around the world, disagreements are not tolerated and learning is teacher-centered, which differs from the autonomy in western students. In some places, knowledge is communal and to be shared, unlike the western individualistic model. As well, in some cultures where women have lower status, they discouraged from speaking up as students.

A Tibetan language class at the Lhasa Experimental Primary School with a communist Chinese flag in the classroom
From the

I will keep these in mind when designing my future classroom. I will create a classroom atmosphere based on respect and it being learner-centred, rather than it being teacher-centred and full of hierarchy. This could be done by asking for examples from the learners’ experiences to use as problems to work through. Instead of giving answers, the class could break into groups and comes up with the answers from their own “inner textbooks”. I would attempt to facilitate groups coming up with their own answers, rather than giving information.

Another example would be to set up the learning experiences to be self-directed. I could get the students to set their own goals and complete a learning contract. Self-reflection would be part of the experience.

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