Using Adult Learning Principles to Match Format to Learner

In the past century, it has become apparent that adults learn in different ways from children. This was initially recognized by B. F. Skinner in 1974 and further refined by Malcolm Knowles in 1984. The importance of incorporating adult learning principles into the design of continuing medical education (CME) activities cannot be overstated. The American Medical Association, the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education, and the Conjoint Committee on CME all support the use of adult learning principles in the planning, implementation, and assessment of CME.

In general, there are four main principles that highlight how adults learn differently from children:

1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
2. Experience and mistakes provides the basis for learning
3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have relevance to their job or personal life
4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Best practice in development and implementation of CME activities includes ensuring these principles are recognized and addressed in activity design. To accomplish this, CME has evolved significantly over the past two decades. CME activities are now more interactive than before, giving learners the opportunity to bring their personal experience into the activity and ensure their educational needs are being met. Activities are more often focused on clinical experience, including cases, simulations, and real-world examples, to provide greater relevance to the learners’ daily work. Even evaluations have evolved, allowing learners to provide more comprehensive feedback in order to influence future activities.

One of the most important changes brought about by the incorporation of adult learning principles into CME is the emergence of a wide variety of learning formats, which allow learners to personalize their experiences and choose from activities that best suit their learning styles and needs. Every learner has a unique learning style, and recognition of this is important in ensuring successful activities. While some physicians are auditory learners, and prefer to hear explanations of new treatments and techniques, others learn through reading and reflection, preferring written case discussions or slides. Some physicians learn better in a group, where they can interact with colleagues and learn from their experiences, while others achieve optimal learning in a quiet, private environment where there is ample time for reflection. The availability of activities that address a number of different learning styles and give learners the opportunity to pick their preferred method of learning is a key component of adult learning that should not be overlooked.