What Motivates Staff to Learn?

February 05, 2018 By Hilary Bush

How can we inspire our staff to engage in learning?

Engagement and motivation are two of the greatest barriers to both the delivery of education and the implementation of the knowledge gained. Having an understanding of Adult Learning Principles and the concept of ‘andragogy’ will put you in a better position to develop a more effective educational program for your organisation.

Adult Learning Principles – Andragogy

Andragogy is a term that was coined to describe the teaching of adults. Although this term has been in use since the 1830s, in recent times it is Malcolm Knowles who has become synonymous with this term, well known for his work in understanding how the adult learner differs, and the science behind how best to teach them. Knowles proposed six core principles that are central to adult learning:

  1. Learners need to know
  2. Self-concept of the learner
  3. Prior experience of the learner
  4. Readiness to learn
  5. Orientation to learning; and
  6. Motivation to learn.

(Knowles, 1984)

These conditions focus around central themes such as motivation, self-directed learning, life experience, goal-orientated learning, practical application, and respect. Andragogy is an important concept, because the adult and child learn considerably differently (Knowles, 1980), and the principle of motivation is a key difference.

Adult Learning Principles

What Motivates Adults to Learn?

When considering the individual’s motivation to learn, Munro (n.d., p. 2) speculates that:

‘We learn when we want an outcome that we won’t have if we don’t change what we know’.

The motivation lies in needing or wanting a skill or information that only the individual can obtain through changing what they know (there are of course different levels of motivation across any given population).

Motives for Learning

Munro (2003) recognises the following types of motives for learning, and associated outcomes:

Motives for Learning Learning Actions Usually Used Learning Outcomes
Surface To meet minimal criteria, hurdles or demands, pass an exam, meet hurdle Actions that help reproduction of ideas learnt; memorising, rote learning of ideas, noting details Ideas retained short-term, not owned or understood by learner, limited application and transfer
Deep Understand the ideas, know more, solve problems, satisfy curiosity, achieve satisfaction by achieving long-term goals Actions that help understanding; taking ideas apart, exploring them as widely as possible, relating ideas to what is already known Better understanding, commitment to the ideas, can teach ideas to others, know that learning is not finished, transfer and use ideas broadly
Achieving Meet the expectations of others, reduce pressure imposed by others to feel valued.
Achieve excellence/high marks/grades/skills to play the game, climb through a system, secure one’s future
Memorise, act to reproduce in an organised way, outcomes valued by others, learn procedurally, not take risks, conform, copy.
Actions that help understanding; linking ideas with existing, knowledge using a range of resources and materials
Structuring the learning in the most facilitative ways

Both ‘deep’ and ‘achieving’ learning theories are centred on the social and collaborative needs of learners, with their motivations embedded in the betterment of others and the desire to progress in a social context. However, the terms ‘collaborative’ and ‘social’ do not necessarily relate to how the learning is undertaken, but rather why.

Munro (2003) suggests that learning on a ‘deep’ or ‘achieving’ level is undertaken because the individual desires to solve problems or meet the expectations of others. In a healthcare context, this can be seen when healthcare professionals such as nurses must solve a clinical problem in order to best care for their patient/s, or meet the expectations of others (such as a regulatory board, by fulfilling continuing professional development (CPD) needs).

Therefore, motives for learning also appear to be contextual, with different types of learning occurring at different stages for different individuals, based on need, setting and type of learning.

‘Surface’ learners wish only to meet minimum requirements (i.e. undertake their minimum mandated hours of CPD every year or learn a new skill to keep their job), while ‘deep’ learners are motivated to solve problems and satisfy curiosity by learning answers to questions they have. ‘Achieving’ learners are motivated by progress, self-confidence and the intrinsic need to constantly know more.

How to Use Adult Learning Principles in Your Practice

The next time you are teaching a colleague, peer or adult family member new information, think about the theoretical principles behind how and why adults learn. Try to identify what type of a learner this person is, and what is driving them to learn this new skill or knowledge.

Some practical tips:

  • Create a pre- and post-test for learners so that they can critically evaluate their state of knowledge
  • Let the learner direct their course of learning (i.e. offer a choice: “Would you like to learn more about IVs or catheters?”)
  • Adult learners need to know how the education affects them, why it’s relevant, and why they need to know it, so try homing in on the problem to be solved, and forego irrelevant, excessive information
  • Leverage their source of motivation to encourage interest (i.e. “Learning this will directly help you pass your exam because it’s on the test”)
  • Case studies and real-life, practical examples should be used wherever possible
  • Learning outcomes should be clearly defined (i.e. “At the end of this you will be able to complete a wound dressing using aseptic technique”); and
  • Acknowledge the job that the learner does, the important role they play and their prior experience they are bringing to this learning experience.


  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017, Who are nurses and midwives?, AIHW, Canberra, viewed 4 April 2017, http://www.aihw.gov.au/workforce/nursing-and-midwifery/who-are-they/
  2. Knowles, MS 1984, Andragogy in action, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
  3. Munro, J n.d., Motivating learning: Why do we learn?, viewed 4 April 2017, https://students.education.unimelb.edu.au/selage/pub/readings/psyexlearn/PELmotivation.pdf
  4. Munro, J 2003, ‘The influence of student learning characteristics on progress through the extended essay: A component of the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme’, Journal of Research in International Education, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 5—24.
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