As tutors for adults, we are not teachers, using a
child-centred model of instruction. Instead, we
act as facilitators and agents of change, enabling
learners to make decisions that change their thinking in
ways that benefit them. In order to guide them so that they
can make this change effectively, we need to know three
factors and address them through our tutorials.
The first factor is the previous learning of adult learners.
These learners possess a large bank of previous learning.
This can be both an asset and a liability. It is an asset when
they link new knowledge and skills to it. This linkage
reduces anxiety about learning new areas. It can be a
liability when it becomes a hindrance to learning something
new. Learners might face difficulty in absorbing the new
information because of interference from their existing
knowledge. If the new information contradicts the existing
knowledge, the learners might dismiss it. In this case, they
need to unlearn the previous learning.
We can help by getting them to build bridges between
the previous and new learning. This can be done by using
analogies and common examples. We could also allow
learners to explore what they already know about an area
before we impart new knowledge. In addition, we need to
give learners credit for what they already know or are able
The second factor is the emotional framework of adult
learners. Adults have established emotional frameworks
consisting of values, attitudes and tendencies. Learning
involves changing behaviours and sometimes, parts of the
framework. All change can be disorienting and can cause
Tutors can help to prevent or reduce this anxiety by
allowing learners to hang on to established values, attitudes
and tendencies as long as these do not get in the way of
learning. We also need to respond to any verbal and nonverbal
feelings that they express. All these efforts will go
towards providing a learning environment that is nonthreatening
and less stressful for our learners.
The third factor is the self-concept of adult learners. Their
self-esteem and ego are on the line when they are asked to
try a new behaviour in front of their tutor and peers. Bad
experiences in traditional education, feelings about authority
and preoccupation with events outside the tutorial can and
may affect tutorial experience. Learners also tend to take
errors personally and are more likely to let these affect their
self-esteem. Consequently, they tend to use tried and tested
solutions and take fewer risks.
We can tackle this situation by providing learners with
opportunities to identify what they want and need to learn;
plan and carry out their own learning activities; and evaluate
their own progress towards self-selected goals. Instead of
playing the traditional role of teacher, we can assume the
role of “learning resource.” It is also important that we treat
learners as adults. Thus, we must avoid talking down to them
or putting them in situations where they feel embarrassed.
Knowing the three factors and handling them as suggested
may help you in getting your learners to unlearn obstructive
previous lessons and learn useful new lessons. You may
want to try out the techniques beginning from your next
tutorial. You may be delightfully surprised with the results.