8 Ways to Motivate Adult Learners


Published: 20 April 2018

Motivation is one of the cornerstones of adult learning.

The higher the levels of motivation, the greater the learning that takes place.

Therefore, nurses are more likely to successfully engage in continuing education when they feel motivated.

So how do we, as nurse educators, motivate our nurses to learn?

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

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

This article describes how nurse educators can understand and apply these factors to their staff development program 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; and
  • The modes and methods of education to be used.

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

Clinical Nurse 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; and
  • Meets the relevant professional standards.

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, nurse educators should think about using teaching strategies that are more practical and hands-on and require problem-solving.

Interactive classroom and effective management

Clinical nurse educators can also increase the motivation of their students by creating an interactive and inclusive classroom culture.

An environment that encourages the sharing of experiences as well as thoughts and ideas will increase engagement and motivation to learn.

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, nurse educators should:

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

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 triggers further learning and improvement.


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

Taking into account adult learning principles, nurse 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.

Conducive learning environment

Creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning is one of the most important considerations for a nurse 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 on learners’ concentration levels and demotivate them from the learning process.

To avoid this, nurse educators should:

  • Ensure the classroom is at a comfortable temperature before the class starts;
  • Ensure the equipment and furniture is set up to suit the learning needs of the educational session; and
  • Try and minimise external distractions, such as noise coming from outside the classroom.

Academic advising practices

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

Nurses will often encounter situations for which they are underprepared. A nurse’s 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; and
  • Reliable.

Quality instruction

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

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

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

To this end, nurse 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; and
  • The session is planned and organised.

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

As nurse 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.
    • 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.
    • 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, Spring). 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. http://dx.doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v4n1p22
    • Thorkildsen, T. A. (2002). Motivation and the struggle to learn: Responding to fractured lie. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
    • Wlodkowski, R. J. (2003, Summer). Fostering motivation in professional development programs. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 98, 39-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ace.98


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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.