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Embracing andragogy – the benefits of tailoring medical education for adult learners

Posted by Leah Bundy

Clinicians working within the rapidly evolving healthcare landscape are faced with a limitless amount of information to understand, retain and apply in practice. They also have a very limited amount of time available to dedicate to learning. These challenges are important to address in the planning of continuing medical education (CME) activities, which should be designed to help healthcare professionals (HCPs) quickly absorb information and seamlessly integrate it into their clinical practice.

This is where the principles of adult learning, or andragogy, come in. Pioneered by adult educator Malcolm Knowles in the 1970’s, adult learning theory addresses the different ways that adults learn compared with younger learners. Knowles suggests that there are five main principles of adult learning:1

  1. Adults are independent and self-directing
  2. They have accumulated a great deal of experience, which is a rich resource for learning
  3. They value learning that integrates with the demands of their everyday life
  4. They are more interested in immediate, problem-centered approaches than in subject-centered ones
  5. They are more motivated to learn by internal drives than by external ones

Integrating these principles into medical education programs has been proven to enhance the understanding, retention, and application of knowledge among physicians.2 Understanding the nuances of adult learning theory therefore emerges as a useful tool to designing impactful and engaging CME programs.

However, translating these assumptions into modern CME requires a thoughtful and strategic approach. It involves matching the intended educational outcomes with the most suitable format and considering exactly what each format type can help us achieve. Case-based scenarios, for example, allow clinicians to reflect on their own experiences and provide an opportunity for problem-based learning, fostering a deeper understanding of information and facilitating a connection between scientific content and its real-world application. Whilst symposia and webinars provide a great opportunity for HCPs to remain informed about the latest research, we can implement adult learning theories to further improve their impact. Opportunities for group discussion, for example, would allow learners to actively participate, reflect on their own practice, and collaborate to solve problems – all of which align with the preferences of adult learners.

Creating opportunities for self-directed learning in our programs is also crucial. This provides a sense of ownership over the educational experience and makes learning as efficient as possible, acknowledging the time constraints faced by HCPs. Offering diverse formats, such as visual aids, podcasts, and infographics, is a simple means of doing this, providing a more inclusive and effective educational experience for HCPs by giving them the autonomy to access resources based on their specific interests and learning styles.

Whilst adult learning principles are a useful guide to follow when developing CME, it’s important to understand that each adult learner is different, and no single theory suits the preferences of all clinicians. While accommodating the diverse preferences of HCPs may seem like a daunting task, individual learning styles should not be seen as an obstacle but an opportunity when designing programs. Even something as simple as offering a podcast in both audio and video formats can go a long way in catering to the diverse learning styles of HCPs, who at the end of the day, are often just looking for the most efficient way to fit education into their demanding schedules.

In our independent program, ‘Primary Care Management of CKD’, we have embraced the principles of andragogy to create a learning experience tailored to the diverse needs of HCPs. Immersing learners in four different realistic scenarios related to the management of CKD in primary care, this program encourages active participation, problem-solving and engagement which in turn improves knowledge retention and confidence when applying knowledge in clinical practice. By providing infographic summaries each case, our program also caters to visual learners, presenting guideline recommendations in visually appealing and easy-to-understand graphics. This condensed format allows quick access to key concepts, enabling busy primary care physicians to grasp information efficiently, aligning with their preference for targeted and relevant content.

In summary, a good understanding of adult learning theory is essential for the success of any CME program. When CME programs adapt to the varied needs of adult learners, they not only enhance clinician education but also play a pivotal role in helping HCPs to make positive changes in their daily practice, ultimately improving outcomes for patients.


  1. Kaufman DM. Applying educational theory in practice. BMJ 2003;326:213–6.
  2. Palis AG, Quiros PA. Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East Afr J Ophthalmol 2014;21:114–22.