Secondary Logo

Journal Logo


The Adult Learner: A Misinterpreted Species?

Vaughn, Lisa M. PhD; Baker, Raymond C. MD; DeWitt, Thomas G. MD

Author Information

We were very interested in the thought-provoking comments Dr. Norman made in his August 1999 article, “The Adult Learner: A Mythical Species.”1 Dr. Norman challenged the principles of adult learning theory, emphasizing the lack of empirical evidence of the principles' value in education and making the assumption that adult learning theory is inextricably linked with self-directed learning. Our concern is that Dr. Norman leaves the reader with a possible misinterpretation of adult learners and adult learning theory. We believe that the adult learner is not in fact a mythical species but rather is a misinterpreted species that is alive and well.

In his seminal book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Knowles suggests that “the richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves,” but clearly these are not the only resources. Knowles does not propose that teachers should address only the learners' needs or teach only what the learners want, but rather that teachers should attempt to work collaboratively with adult learners to assess their needs and strive for compatibility between these needs and the process of learning. Knowles makes clear that teachers should have a say in the content of learning when he states, “adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.” Norman's fixation on the coupling of adult learning theory and self-directed learning may lead readers to lose sight of perhaps the most significant component of adult learning theory—the idea that adult learners bring many years of experience and their own understanding of their learning needs to the teaching-learning environment. They don't independently travel down the self-directed path without their teachers' assistance or collaboration. The teachers' job is to assess the learners' perspectives on the learning process and not simply to teach what they think is best. Just as a physician would not treat a patient without first making a diagnosis (and consulting with the patient), teachers should likewise begin adult education by first attempting to appreciate the knowledge and perspectives adult learners bring to the process.

We disagree with Dr. Norman's assertion that adult learning theory “has been subjected to no more critical empirical theory testing than has naturopathy or astrology.” It is true that Knowles does not present empirical studies proving the efficacy of adult learning theory. However, since the theory was first proposed, many studies have been conducted to examine the value of teaching practices based on the theory, such as problem-based learning (which Dr. Norman cites) and experiential learning,2,3 and the role of motivation in learning.4,5,6,7,8

While we recognize the validity of Dr. Norman's conclusions regarding the similar knowledge outcomes of problem-based learning and its equivalent efficacy as compared with traditional pedagogic methods, we believe that this presents only one side of the picture. By focusing his argument on knowledge outcomes, he ignores the other benefits of approaching learners using a more problem-based or self-directed approach (e.g., teamwork, patient focus, lifelong learning skills, humanism).9 Since there is agreement in educational and psychological circles that adults in general have greater autonomy and clearer self-concepts, why not let them choose their own preferred methods of learning? The opportunity to choose by itself will enhance the learning environment and shift responsibility for the success of that method to the learner.

In the past few years, “adult learning theory” has taken a beating. We recommend that health professions teachers not be so easily swayed to discount adult learning theory and the importance it plays in creating an effective and productive environment where teachers and learners can partner to achieve positive learning outcomes. We need to stop rationalizing our traditional, teacher-centered efforts at the cost of our adult learners and start viewing the adult learner as more than an imaginary character.


1. Norman GR. The adult learner: a mythical species. Acad Med. 1999;74:886–9.
2. Plake KS, Wolfgang AP. The impact of experiential education on pharmacy students' perceptions of health roles. Am J Pharmaceutical Educ. 1996;60:13–9.
3. Toohey S, et al. Assessing the practicum. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 1996;21:215–27.
4. Fox RD, Mazmanian PE, Putnam RW. Change and Learning in the Lives of Physicians. New York Praeger, 1989.
5. Sass EG. Motivation in the college classroom: What students tell us. Teaching of Psychology. 1989;16:86–7.
6. Lowman J. Professors as performers and motivators. College Teaching. 1994;42:137–41.
7. Lowman J. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
8. McDaniel TR. The ten commandments of motivation. Clearing House. 1985;59:19–23.
9. Federman DD. Little-heralded advantages of problem-based learning. Acad Med. 1999;74:93–4.
© 2000 Association of American Medical Colleges