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Clinical Nurse Educator Tips: The Ins and Outs of Teaching Adult Learners

  • As you remember through hours of nursing school, not everyone learns or retains information the same way.  
  • A clinical nurse educator must be aware of the differences in motivation and learning styles, especially among adult learners. 
  • Going back to school after years out in the workforce can be a tough transition to make and it is the clinical nurse educator’s responsibility to make an adult learner’s experience as positive and fruitful as possible.  

Susan Schwartz


February 25, 2022
Simmons University

Adult learners require different approaches than younger students as they may need more time or detailed explanations.  

This age group of learners can be successful if the instructor takes time to get to know them and their unique abilities.  

Of course, there are many different learning styles that span across all ages and knowing which one best encompasses the adult learner will only assist in helping them enjoy their classes or training sessions. Adults tend to learn topics more quickly when they pertain to their work or home life. 

Are you a clinical nurse instructor or preceptor looking for techniques that will better enhance a learning experience for adult learners? We’ve got you covered!

Differentiating Factor in Learning: A Clinical Nurse Instructor

Many times, a clinical nurse instructor can make or break the class.  

Instructors should be patient, kind, and above all, facilitate an environment where learning can occur.  

If they are negative or condescending toward the adult learner, they may not be giving them the chance to know what they are capable of.  

Professionalism is required every day in the way the clinical nurse instructor acts, talks, and dresses. By promoting a professional attitude, the adult learner will be more accepting of the teaching methods as opposed to someone else who acts like they might know everything.  

Being positive and encouraging is a must, as is listening to comments and questions and giving feedback. Instructors should endeavor to be a role model to their students.  

For example, a nurse should showcase all the skills necessary to perform their job to the best of their ability. 


group of adult learners in classroom

Learning Styles

There are four types of learning styles that clinical nurse educator should be aware of – verbal, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  

Verbal includes writing, reading, and speaking.  

Visual employs picture cards used for illustration, diagrams, charts, and color.  

The auditory style encompasses that which you can hear – audio recording of the instructions for the task, sound, rhythm, rhyme, and music.  

Kinesthetic learning requires action or movement, such as hands-on learning. Many people learn by doing the action themselves, instead of just seeing it or hearing it.  

Assessing which type of learner is half the battle in getting students past various obstacles throughout a class.  

It is vital that a clinical nurse educator gets to know their students in order to accommodate which learning style they might have. By doing so, it will truly enhance their learning experience and make for the best outcome.

clinical nurse educator teaching students


What motivates the adult learner?  

Many items may be on this list, such as getting a promotion, making more money, living a better life, and taking more fancy vacations.  

Sometimes it may be something simple; they may just want to find a new group of friends that share the same interests. Other times, people just like to learn for the sake of it! 

Most adult learners are self-directed, autonomous, and goal-directed and want a work-life-school balance. 

It is helpful for the clinical nurse educator to put themselves into their students’ shoes.  

Ask internal questions such as,  

  • “What interests me?” 
  • “What fulfills me?” 
  • “How would I want to balance work, school, and life?” 

Educators are not much different from their adult learners! Find a common ground, understand their intentions, and work with what you are given. Who knows? It might be a truly differentiating factor in their learning experience.

adult learning students


Barriers get everybody down at some point.  

As a clinical nurse educator, it is no surprise that there is always something that can (and will) go wrong at any given point.  

In my experience, kids and transportation are normally the two biggest issues. Either they have no one to watch the kids or they have no way to get to class.  

Next in line is scheduling issues.  

Here is a common example that I have seen many times: a student knew that they had a big paper due, but they had to work overtime and all throughout the weekend – which is normally when adult learners have time to focus on their studies. 

Surprisingly enough, confidence is another top barrier.  

As one can imagine, going back to school to pursue higher education can be difficult. Some adults just don’t have the drive or the confidence to go back to school and pursue further education and degrees.  

Lastly, one of the last barriers I have witnessed during my time as a clinical nurse educator is a lack of time or money. Without either of these, returning to school may present even more obstacles. If the adult learner is working for minimum wage 40 to 60 hours per week, this will not be conducive to learning and applying knowledge in a quiet calm environment. Inadequacy and anxiety will continue to hound them. 

Of course, it is important to note that everyone is different and not one person’s experiences are the same as another’s, however, understanding general barriers that one might encounter as a clinical nurse educator is vital.  

 adult nursing students in classroom talking

Teaching the Adult Learner: What it Takes

Patience and Compassion

As with any student, adult learners need to be respected and given the freedom to explore options available to them for returning to school.  

Clinical nurse instructors should get to know them using their background and life experiences in teaching and learning.  

Meet the adult learner at their level, whether that be top of the class, in the middle, or at the bottom – start where they are comfortable, and then move forward from there.  

Constructive feedback should always be the rule. Tearing down an adult student can cause even more damage to their esteem.  

Being positive and encouraging gives them a better outlook on the future and how they can bring their A-game to class. 

At first, learning new skills can be uncomfortable to the adult learner. As the clinical nurse educator, it is essential to always have patience and compassion.  

Compassionate instructors will find the adult confiding in them or asking questions as they become more comfortable in participating in class.  

Creativity and Openness to Try Things

Some adults find they need to relearn how to think when returning to school.  

As students, we learn something and then use it for the upcoming test. As an adult, when we learn something, we try to apply it to our lives or our jobs to get a better understanding and to retain the information. When information is relevant to the adult student, they better retain and apply it as they will have a deeper understanding. 

Additionally, working in teams can facilitate learning. Everyone brings something to the table in a team, and one student may be able to better explain the topic than the instructor.  

It helps to have someone who is learning the same material explain how they understand or interpret it. Different viewpoints are helpful when trying to assimilate new information.  

Visitors in the classroom present unique learning opportunities.  

These speakers can address current information or talk about their career goals and how they met them. They can speak of barriers and other issues to help those still on the fence realize that goals can be met, it just takes patience and hard work. 

After their presentation, they can have a question-and-answer session to catch all of those questions about the information and/or themselves. 

Asking Questions

Another way to get the student talking is to ask open-ended questions!  

The learner can explain their thinking or why they picked a particular answer.  

In turn, this may help get a discussion going that will drive the lesson home. Just asking a yes/no question doesn’t leave much room for discussion, and it will not help retention of the material.

Not Overcomplicating It

The most important rule for a clinical nurse educator is to keep it simple!  

Unnecessary information tends to confuse the adult learner.  

Breaking down the big assignment into small chunks may also help them see the light at the end of the tunnel and not get bogged down on the “big picture.”  

After they learn the task well, allow them the opportunity to teach another student the topic; this is a wonderful way to assist them in retention and building their self-esteem!

The Big Picture

Adult learners may have been out of the classroom for a long time before returning; some may have had bad experiences or memories from school.  

Instructors should create a safe and welcoming environment where adult students can learn and be prepared for any assignments they are given.  

Having empathy and being approachable are two of the most important qualities of being a clinical nurse educator. 

Knowing your student and their limitations can give both of you a starting point.  

Facilitate learning and empower students with positivity and compassion! 

All of these aspects work together to create a learning and teaching tapestry that facilitates a rich environment for learning. 

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