Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


What are the main techniques used in Adult Education?

By Germán Andrés Piderit and Luisa Fernanda Quijano (OISE/UT)


In order to answer our question, we explored the place that methods and techniques have in the adult learning process, summarized the range of practical strategies used today in the field of adult education, and attempted to determine the contribution of educational techniques in the learning experience of the adult learner by identifying the critical factors that would make such experience a valuable, lasting and effective one.

The selection, application and mastering of a particular technique only address the “How” of the educational goal, and cannot be analyzed outside of an overall framework that includes the role that the “Why”, “What”, “Where” and “Who” plays in the overall educational process.

The “Why” relates to the objective and justifies the educational experience as a desire to be educated. The “What” relates to content and the type of knowledge being expanded in the educational process, i.e. emotional, cognitive and/or spiritual. The “Where” investigates the places where the meeting of educators, students and subject-matter take place. The “Who” acknowledges the duality of educator and learner as drivers of the educational process and the influence of these agents in the selection of the most appropriate techniques.

From an educator’s perspective, learning reaches its plateau when the delivery technique (execution of the “how”) is perfectly aligned with the requirements of the remaining “W’s”.

Techniques in Context: The Dynamic Equilibrium of Learning

We recognize the dynamic interdependence among four key elements involved in the educational process which function as a system:

We suggest that these four elements are interdependent and yet they operate at the same level. Firstly, educator and learner work as elements that take action in the learning experience, and secondly, content and delivery methods work as the subject-matter(s) and tools required to make the experience effective.

The uniqueness of the moment of learning

It is proposed here that the state of this “system” of four elements is unique at any given point in time. In other words, the combined interaction between educator and learner through content and execution method is dynamic and non-repeatable. In order to remain at this “learning plateau” throughout the learning experience, it has to be recognized that all four elements have to change during this evolution. It is impossible for any of them to remain constant and keep the educational experience optimal.

The selection of the most appropriate technique plays a balancing role. In this manner, techniques have a defined lifecycle. When conditions change, they should expire and be replaced by new ones as learners, educators and content evolve.

The challenge becomes for the educator, some times with the help of the learning community of students, to continuously be able to select the most appropriate techniques throughout the process objectively given that she/he is part of the system itself.

The Educator

In the book The Courage to Teach (1998), Parker J. Palmer (1998) argues self-knowledge determines the very basic building blocks for commitment, love and mastery of teaching. It is not only required that the teacher be proficient in the subjects and techniques about to be shared, but also that a strong inner-sense of self-identity and integrity be present. Palmer claims that “We teach who we are… teaching emerges from one’s inwardness”( p.1). At the end, regardless of content, the learning experience will reflect the very soul of that individual. He assumes that in our rush to reform education we have forgotten that it will never be achieved by “rewriting curricula and revising texts if we fail to cherish —and challenge— the human heart that is the source of good teaching” (P. 3). The inner landscape of teaching itself is then the place to explore and to find an answer to the techniques required for each point in time and space, to manage/teach/learn content (see content description below) effectively.

 He affirms that any subject matter should be viewed from the intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions not as segmented aspects but in the wholeness of reality. He also sees the teacher as the connector of the reality of the subject-matter, himself/herself and his/her students:

Bad teachers distance themselves from the subject they are teaching—and in the process, from their students. Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life… Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex weave of connections, among themselves, their subjects and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. (Palmer, 1998, P. 11).

Characteristics of the teacher’s world

The teacher acts as the element of the learning process who exercises the intentional act of creating conditions that can help students learn. She/he should learn to “reeducate her/his heart” so it gets engaged in the joyful “pursuit of truth in the company of friends” (Palmer, 1998, p. 90). Among other simple issues that may characterize a teacher here are some collected from our own experience as teachers, and from the sources given at the end of the article:

Understanding the Adult Learner

It seems incredible that more often than not we don’t know who our students are before the first class. A good first step would be to have some written information about our students before we start planning our courses. But if that is not possible, then during the time between our first two class meetings, we should answer the question: who are my students?

In general, adult students share some important characteristics. They are active learners who respond positively to learning experiences that involve them. They like to have their opinions consulted and “enjoy having their talents and experience made use of in the teaching situation” (Mezei, 1991, p.10).

For the purposes of understanding the influence of the adult learners in the selection of techniques, two aspects of adults are briefly discussed: (a) the characteristics of the adult learner, as introduced by M. Knowles; and (b) the learning styles recognized according to some late 20th century theorists.

When Knowles popularized the term andragogy in 1968, he reflected on four key areas where adults display certain characteristics that govern the learning process, and makes this process different than children’s education. Even though Knowles’ conceptualization has been criticized by other education theorists (for instance, see Collins 1998, or Draper 1998) they would still help us to address our question on the appropriate methodologies to the adult learner. For Knowles, the four areas that govern adult learning are the following:

Learning Styles

Beyond the four specific characteristics of adult learners mentioned above, several experts in the field maintain that we as learners have a certain tendency to manage knowledge and reflect, act, theorize about it in different ways. For instance, Kolb (1976) identifies four learning styles. As learners display more propensities to learn according to a certain style,  it is possible to recognize four learner types:

Determining Content

Political, social and economic movements within reigning and new paradigms have historically defined content at macro-social levels. In recent decades, we have observed three major tendencies, which have evolved as key influences for determining content in the formal and non-formal adult education:

Methodology and Techniques

To start unfolding the methodologies used in adult education it would be useful to take an overview into the most general tendencies observed in our western culture. In the first place, a method is defined as an “overall plan for systematic presentation (of a subject) based upon a selected approach” (Brown, 2001, p.14). Techniques are the specific activities manifested in the classroom that are consistent with a method.

There are specific methods used in teaching, as opposed to other formal agencies of schooling that have employed, and often do employ, methods other than teaching, for example indoctrination, suggestion, threats and force. What distinguishes teaching (Scheffler, 1965) is “its special connection with rational explanation and critical dialogue, with the enterprise of giving honest reasons and welcoming radical questions” (p.11). The teacher does not want to foster merely belief, but to bring it about through the exercise of free rational judgment by the student. Moreover, it is important to recall the key psychological principles advanced by liberal education throughout the 20th century: “progressing from the simple to the complex, from the particular to the general, from the concrete to the abstract” (Hirst, 1965, p. 136).

The analysis of techniques used in adult education generally divides the strategies in three broad categories:

Teacher Oriented techniques

In the teacher oriented techniques the lecture and the questioning techniques are the most utilized. We may find also the guided discussion techniques and the scripted role-play but because they allow more interaction in class we decided to classify them as interactive techniques.


When the subject-matter of study requires specific information, the learning community is large and the place of learning allows it, the lecture is useful. It should be planned in terms of length and placement and should have a structured outline, including an introduction, a body and a conclusion. Ideal lectures give mini-summaries periodically, allow participation of the community, time for reflection and feedback (Humber College, 1996, p. 26).

Questioning techniques

These techniques are a powerful way of increasing student participation. The teacher plans them according to a higher or lower level of response. They could ask for summarizing, understanding, encouraging critical thinking, enhancing problem-solving ability or stimulating creativity or research activities.

Questions may be open with a wide realm of answers or closed with limited responses. The skilled teacher plans the questions according to the goals and the content, and clearly phrases them to be sure that they don’t reveal the answers. After the students answer, the next step requires expertise to know where to place the students’ responses. They may help to reinforce the subject-matter, prove it, refocus it, redirect it or rephrase it.

Also it is vital to consider the environment of freedom in the classroom to ask questions, to answer questions and not to feel threatened by giving an incorrect response. The teacher should listen to the students’ questions and be sure that she/he and the class understood the question. There are some paths that the teacher can take: answering the question, redirecting the question to the class, helping the student to answer his/her own question, asking the student to stop after class to discuss the question, referring the student to a resource where the question can be answered or deferring the question until a more appropriate time.  (Humber College, pp. 29-35).

Interactive techniques

“Relinquishing control of learning to our students is much like parents allowing their children to go home. It’s scary! (Humber p. 36)  But as we have seen, the learning process needs it and puts more fun into the learning endeavor.

The most common interactive techniques are guide discussion, role-play, case study, group-work, programmed fieldwork and cooperative learning. 

Discussion groups

Discussion can target almost any level of cognitive and affective domains but requires a structured process of large and small group discussion focused in the subject–matter objectives. There are some variations like “circle responses” that gives the opportunity to talk to every one in the small group; “spend a penny” which works with the use of tokens to allow everybody to talk a certain number of times; “brainstorming” that is open to the imagination of the group; “guided discussions” where the group facilitation expertise of the teacher draws out the more reluctant speakers and gently holds back the more verbal participants; “panel discussions” a conversation of a small group in front of the whole group; “debates” a discussion wherein two opposing sides will be moderated; “reaction groups” which constitute a forum for quick responses; and “concentric circles” where a small circle of group members form to discuss a topic within a larger circle that listens for a while until the discussion is reversed. (Humber, 1996).

Case Study

This technique is extensively used in medicine and legal professions, and it refers to real life problems narrated with a story telling quality and challenges participants to find recommendations and solutions to the problems. They are mainly used in teaching knowledge, values and attitudes. Peter Renner suggests that we humans are fascinated by well-told stories, so it enhances the case study when we can give “adventurous names to the protagonists…or play with words: Fred B. Friendly, Jura Paine, Zizzy Zazu” (Renner,1999, p.81). Also it is appealing to use realistic details, descriptive situations, put the words in the mouth of the protagonists like in a real novel and give a complete view; but depending on the experience of the participants it is possible to leave room for speculation and mystery.

Group Work

Group work is a generic term for multiple techniques in which two or more students (more than six is not recommended) (Brown, 2001) are assigned a task that involves collaboration and self initiated conversation. Group work is considered vital to education because among other reasons, it offers an embracing affective climate, promotes learner responsibility and autonomy, and is a step toward self directed learning.

In order to select the appropriate group techniques, the teacher must plan them, must monitor them and follow them up. In order to do this it is important to clarify the differences between pair work and group work. Pair work serves for short and simple tasks. Group work embraces games, role-play and simulations, drama, projects, information gaps, jigsaw techniques and buzz groups or Phillips 66 (groups of six working for six minutes). We chose to describe the buzz group dynamics because it is considered one of the most interesting in interactive teaching strategies.

The buzz group (buzz refers to the sound emitted by the group of adults concentrating on the task) is a spontaneously formed team with a task to be accomplished in short time. One person acts as recorder, summarizing the group output and reporting to the larger group afterwards. The teacher allows four to six minutes for the buzz, the instructions and the report. The group may need some materials like paper, newsprint, felt pens, masking tape, transparencies, etc. (Renner, 2001, p. 30)

Programmed Field Work

More than a technique the fieldwork is a learning process that occurs in a natural setting with or without teacher observation. The most important benefit is the opportunity to apply and integrate theory with practice, even if the evaluation process is difficult because of the absence of the teacher, for example in a hospital placement for nursing students.

Cooperative learning

Collaborative or cooperative learning is a process that involves a group of techniques to work in small peer learning groups to enhance classroom interaction and achieve learning purposes. In order for the students to work cooperatively teachers must systematically structure the basic components, and be available as a resource person to monitor and facilitate group process. (Bennett, 1991)


Role-playing is a re-creation of a real life situation, which involves acting it out in front of the group. It can be spontaneous or guided by the teacher, is useful for the development of interpersonal skills and the affective domain and can induce a real experience of emotions.

Simulations and Games

Simulations and games provide a fun break from the seriousness of our daily life, and allow students to relax and learn painlessly. They represent or model a real life situation in a concrete or abstract form and encourage the use of rules, principles, concepts and decision-making inner processes. Skillful debriefing is necessary to transfer insights into real-life applications. (Mezey 1991).

Independent Techniques

Among the independent techniques we find computer assisted techniques, programmed and modularized instruction, independent learning packages, and self directed learning techniques.

Programmed and Modularized Instruction

These techniques are highly structured printed or computerized programs in which the content is broken into small sequenced steps. The learner moves through the program based on supplying answers to questions posed at intervals during the program. The students work at their own pace and receive immediate feedback to their questions. This method is more efficient for learning at the lower levels of cognitive domain (Humber, 1996).

Independent Learning Packages

The independent learning packages consist of independent or prescribed materials selected in consultation with the teacher, according to the student’s needs and level. The curriculum can be tailor made for each individual (Humber, 1996).

Self- directed learning techniques

It is a process by which the learner develops a plan for learning that includes goals (learning outcomes), resources, strategies and evaluations. This plan is made in consultation with the teacher who acts as facilitator of the process. The student enters into a learning contract with the teacher to ensure that the requirements for a particular course of study are met. (Humber, 1996).


Bennet, B., Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind. Ajax, On. Educational Connections, 1991.

Brown D., Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. 2nd Ed. Longman Inc. NY, 2001.

Cloutier, E., “Effective Classroom Questioning techniques”. University of Illinois In: Selecting Teaching and Learning Strategies. A Self Study Guide. Lens, Humber College, Toronto, 1996.

Collins, M., “Critical Returns: From Andragogy to Lifelong Education”. In: Learning for Life. Canadian Readings in Adult Education. Scott, S., Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc. Toronto, 1998.

Freire, P., Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Herder & Herder, N Y, 1972.

Hirst, P., in Archambault, R.P., Philosophical Analysis and Education. The Humanities Press N.Y, 1965.

Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology. Selecting Teaching and Learning Strategies. A self  Study Guide. Lens, Toronto, 1996.

Kolb, D., Learning Style Inventory. McBer & Co., 1976.

Mezei, K., Principles of Adult Learning. Humber College Ed. Toronto, 1991.

Renner P., The Art of Teaching Adults: How to become an exceptional instructor and facilitator. Training Associates, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 1999.

November 2002

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