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  • Writer's pictureGuest post by Brandon Lee, MS, RD, CCRP

Teaching Nutrition Effectively: Consider the Learner’s Autonomy and Experience

3 adults in a classroom setting with the words How do adults learn?

Adults are constantly learning… in formal settings (e.g., higher education), non-formal settings (e.g., community groups), and in informal settings (e.g., with friends or through mass media). Adults are curious, autonomous, and freethinkers.


However, programs and systems are often designed to educate adults like children: sit down, listen, take notes, end of class. Is this effective?


No. Decades of research on learning and education have concluded that adults do not learn similarly to children. The accumulation of this research is called "andragogy."


What is andragogy?

Andragogy is the art and science of helping adults learn. The term was used as early as 1833 by a German educator, Alexandr Knapp, and later by Lindeman in the 1926 book The Meaning of Adult Education. However, in the 1960's, Malcolm Knowles popularized the term andragogy. Malcolm Knowles aimed to distinguish the methods and strategies of teaching adults from children.


Today, andragogy has been clearly distinguished from pedagogy (the art and science of teaching children). Yet, many American healthcare professionals are unfamiliar with the term, which is used chiefly in Central and Eastern European countries.


Helping adults learn is embedded in dietetics practice, specifically in two of the most common nutrition interventions: nutrition education and nutrition counseling. Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) can benefit from learning about andragogy to enhance their dietetics practice.


In the 1980s, Knowles developed six “assumptions” about adult learners. These assumptions have also been described as a "system of concepts" that help differentiate adult learning from childhood learning.


This series will identify each assumption, explain its theoretical rationale, and review practical applications for Registered Dietitians. In this post, we will explore the first two assumptions.


What are Knowles' assumptions about adult learners?


Assumption 1: As a person matures, his or her self-concept moves from that of a dependent personality toward one of a self-directing human being.

One of the key aspects that differentiates adult learners from children is their autonomy. While children may learn about math because they have homework and their teacher tells them to do it, adults have a more self-directed approach.


For instance, an adult might choose to learn math to make financially sound decisions and save money. This autonomy in learning is a crucial aspect that RDs must recognize and respect in their role as educators.


RDs must recognize that adult learners will not engage in the learning process if they do not want to. Therefore, the first assumption of the adult learner requires the RD to create a friendly learning climate and provide opportunities for self-evaluation.


First, the learning climate must help the adult learner feel accepted, respected, and supported; this can be done physically or psychologically. Physically creating an effective learning climate requires evaluating the physical environment. For example, nutrition counselors should ensure that their chairs are comfortable and their walls or windows are free from distracting or offensive material.


Psychologically, creating an effective learning environment includes verbally respecting their independence. For example, nutrition counselors should focus on providing their clients with healthy food alternatives rather than specifically telling them what to eat.


Second, RDs should consider adding planning, self-diagnostic, and self-evaluation experiences to their dietetics practice. Adult learners are more self-aware than children and capable of organizing their thoughts, strategizing, and reflecting.


RDs should facilitate the learning process, not lead it. When adults are provided knowledge, they should be empowered to determine a method for implementing it.


For example, rather than a nutrition counselor telling their client when they will add a healthy snack to their day, they allow the client to determine when they can realistically and successfully add it.


Because adults are self-directed, they can participate in the diagnosis of the learning needs, organizing and implementation of their learning experiences, and the evaluation of those experiences.


Assumption 2: An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich source for learning.

All genuine education comes from experience. Today, we know this as experiential learning. Kolb spearheaded the best-known theory of experiential learning.


Kolb defined learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience." Kolb's experiential learning framework and definition of learning compliments Knowles's second assumption of the adult learner.


The moment adult learners step into the classroom or learning environment, they bring a reservoir of experience and knowledge. For example:

  • Adults who are afraid of pit bulls may have been bitten by one prior, and based on that experience, expect all pit bulls to be a threat.

  • Adults may withdraw cash from their bank before going to the local carnival because they know from previous carnivals that they usually don't accept credit or debit.


Apply the same principle to an adult’s food and nutrition knowledge. For example, foodservice workers may leave cut melons and tomatoes out on the counter hours before service because, in their experience, it is still usually "cold enough" by the time it is served.


To practically apply the second assumption, the RD or Foodservice Manager (FSM) should emphasize experiential techniques and practical applications to educate them on Time/Temperature Control for Safety (TCS) foods, proper storage, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), and effective foodservice systems.


To accomplish this, at the next team meeting, the FSM should demonstrate a realistic order of operations that the workers can implement to improve food safety while minimizing staff burden. Help the adult learner develop new, more significant experiences to invoke learning and long-term change. 


Knowles' assumptions or systems of concepts regarding the adult learner are often overlooked in the healthcare profession and only thought of as an effective principle for college professors.


Adults are constantly learning through their own self-directedness and experiences. Remember, respect your learners' autonomy and help them learn through experience.


This guest post was written by Brandon Lee, MS, RD, CCRP. Read his story on the community page



“The purpose of adult education is to help them to learn, not to teach them all you know and thus stop them from learning.” ~ Carl Rogers


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