How to Engage Adult Learners


Published: 08 April 2018

Engaging adult learners in the classroom is one of the most challenging tasks for nurse educators.

However, there are a number of teaching strategies that are based on adult learning principles that nurse educators can use to engage adult learners:

  1. Encourage adult learners to share prior experiences
  2. Facilitate interactive learning scenarios
  3. Use competition to motivate adult learners
  4. Incorporate simulation-based teaching methods

How do nurses learn?

The foundation of nursing is based on developing practical skills and applying theory to practice. Further, a nurse’s efficiency in practice is assessed on how well he or she can practically apply their theoretical knowledge in a safe, skilful manner. Learning also often takes place on the ward.

While nursing is so practically attuned, it is equally important for nurses to attain and retain theoretical knowledge in a classroom environment.

However, often distractions will emerge which unintentionally disrupt learners. It may be people arriving late or a mobile phone going off, for example. Whatever the distraction, the educator then must work twice as hard to re-engage and retain the attention of learners.

As educators, how can we overcome these challenges? What strategies can we employ to engage nursing students and increase their motivation to learn?

Adult Learning Principles - Andragogy

Knowles et al. (2005), made six assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners. One of these assumptions states that adult learners bring vast experience into the classroom which acts as a resource for learning.

Further, the Greek Philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) believed that all learning has an emotional base.

Nurse educators can benefit greatly from applying the above theories in the classroom environment.

Tip 1: Encourage adult learners to share prior experiences

As identified by Knowles et al., adult learners have growing amounts of experience that they are able to share in the classroom. This experience will also carry associated emotion which will work to facilitate learning.

Encouraging adult learners to share their related experiences will increase engagement and motivation to learn. Further, when adults feel they are making a positive contribution to the classroom, learning becomes the inevitable result of their contribution.

When delivering lengthy First Aid training sessions to nursing students, I successfully engaged students by asking them to share their personal experiences. Over the course of the session, I would provide an opportunity for students to share their experiences on various topics covered. The monotony of the teaching session was broken through the active participation and contribution of students. This also added variety to what could have been ‘just another First Aid training session’.

Tip 2: Facilitate interactive learning activities and scenarios

In another education session, I engaged students to participate in learning by enabling students to take part in interactive learning activities and act out potential scenarios that they would see on the ward.

After first discussing the signs, symptoms and possible treatments for an asthmatic casualty, students were encouraged to create spontaneous and different scenarios of casualties. Reacting to different scenarios that may present stimulated critical thinking towards saving a life.

To optimise this teaching method of engaging adult learners, scenarios should incorporate different environments and incidents, with casualties of different ages and demographics as well.

Tip 3: Use competition to motivate adult learners

Adult learners can also be engaged by encouraging their competitive streak. I successfully achieved this in an education session, whereby adult learners were motivated to actively participate in the session by having the opportunity to win prizes.

I had the classroom set up with tables and chairs on either side in order to have two groups in the room and I could comfortably walk up and down between the two groups and grab the attention of learners who drifted during the session.

I had chocolates as the prize to motivate learners to participate in answering questions with the onset of the session until the completion of the teaching session.

Tip 4: Incorporate simulation-based teaching methods

In my role as an educator for a medical devices company, education was based around products that could enhance ease of use in practice. In this environment educators can ensure their learners are engaged by running simulation-based trainings. This is particularly useful when introducing new products.

As part of a Peripheral Intravenous Cannulation workshop, nurses were given the opportunity to practice their intravenous cannulation skills. The practical demonstration session enabled nurses to practice their skills in a playful way with new products that they may not have encountered before.

This simulation-based training, practicing cannulation on simulation arms, also enabled nurses to practice skills in a safe and comfortable environment: nurses did not have to prick a real patient and they were able to practice until they felt comfortable with the new products.

Tactile interactions for adult nursing students allow them to practice their skills in a safe environment that in return enhances engagement of the adult learner.

As educators, we can employ various teaching strategies to engage our learners. By teaching in a way that is interactive, encourages participation and acknowledges adult learning principles, we enable students to learn effectively and apply this knowledge to their practice.


  • Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th Ed.). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.



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Denise Turner View profile
Denise Turner began her nursing career in South Africa in the year 2000 as a passionate orthopaedic Registered Nurse. In 2002, her qualifications brought her to Perth, Western Australia, where she now resides. Denise developed into a clinical nurse educator, starting from a staff development nurse in the West Australian health sector, clinical nurse facilitator at higher education teaching facilities in WA, as well as the corporate sector. Denise is driven by her passion for expanding her own knowledge whilst contributing to enhancing the knowledge of others. She is always ready for the next challenge her life brings on a personal, as well as a professional, level. She is now pursuing a path of combining her passion for teaching with research studies related to the nurse educator in the hospital, training institution, and the corporate world.