Instructing adults can be one of the most gratifying experiences in life. It is something enjoyed annually by countless numbers of men and women from all walks of life. The motivation to teach adults is seldom driven by economics or personal gain. Most instructors do it out of a genuine interest in helping mature individuals succeed in life.

At the same time, there is considerable anxiety among many instructors and trainers about how best to teach adults. Some of the more perceptive individuals realize that teaching adults is different from teaching children in that: (a) adult learners are very diverse owing to the various levels of education, experience, and expectations they possess, and (b) when given the opportunity, most adults prefer to be in charge of their own learning. The problem facing most adult instructors is finding reliable information that capitalizes on knowledge about adult diversity or experience and puts this information into a proven system for teaching adults. The goal of this book is to help instructors of adults regardless of setting organize their instruction in such a way that teaching and learning excellence is the result.

Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful provides a comprehensive teaching and learning process for ensuring such excellence and greater instructional success. The individualizing process is designed to be flexible, practical, and applicable in a variety of settings ranging from literacy instruction to training in the corporate world. The process offers adult instructors and trainers a proven way of facilitating learning.

We need to note here that when we refer to individualizing instruction, we are not talking about earlier or standardized uses of the term. These include such terms as programmed instruction, teaching machines, experimental colleges, and individualized education where learners use specially designed teaching-learning units or modules for the mastery of self-selected goals. Certainly there are some similarities, but we are actually advocating a somewhat new use of the term more akin to Carl Roger's (1983) call for self-initiated learning, responsible participation in a learning process, and self-evaluation within a "freedom to learn" climate. Miller and Hotes notes, "Individualized instruction . . . emphasizes individual responsibility for efforts in performance" (1982, p. 20).

A number of books currently available are related in some way to teaching adults, but none of these describe in a single volume an effective instructional process that capitalizes on the unique individual qualities or ability to accept personal responsibility present in adulthood; thus, teachers are forced to draw upon many sources for ideas and guidance related to their instructional activities. In this book, the reader will learn how to plan, organize, and implement an individualizing process for adults. Particular attention is devoted to areas rarely covered in other sources related to teaching, such as understanding the differences in various learning settings, capitalizing on the adult learner's nascent need to accept personal responsibility, and working with various adult populations.

Some of the positive contributions from reading this book are:

  1. Instilling greater confidence in your adult learners as they work toward their potential.
  2. Removing the mystery and lowering the anxiety often associated with the instructional transaction.
  3. Increasing the satisfaction you and your learners can obtain from synergistically engaging in instructional endeavors.
  4. Making teaching more gratifying and exhilarating.
  5. Providing a practical and consistent way to organize instruction so that learners will assume greater responsibility for their own learning.
  6. Helping colleagues realize the value and importance of incorporating flexibility into their own teaching.


This book is based on more than 30 years of combined experience working with adults in various instructional capacities and locations. We have taught at several postsecondary institutions working in a variety of credit and non-credit instructional settings, including semester long graduate courses, intensive summer sessions, short-term training workshops, concentrated weekend experiences, and distance education programs. We hasten to add that probably 99 percent of the learners with whom we have worked have been 25 years of age or older, so we do not have much experience with younger people or undergraduate students. Although we have had instructional experiences with multicultural, international, and numerous female learners, as two white males we recognize that some biased points of view may exist in the book. Any corresponding inaccuracies or misinterpretations in describing the individualizing process are unintended and we assume complete responsibility for them.

The individualizing process has been tested and retested in various settings and with many types of adult learners including non-readers, older adults, graduate students, business and industry trainees, journeymen and apprenticeship instructors, health-related workers, and many others. The process is rooted in adult education scholarship and personal beliefs about the learning potential of each person, grows out of our actual practice with such learners described above, and has evolved from constant evaluation to its present form.

Most aspects of the process have been tried by us at least three times with corresponding success. Whenever some aspect of the process is still being developed or has emanated from the literature, we include appropriate references for your subsequent review or assessment. Thus, we have written this book so our experiences can be shared with others who desire to improve their teaching and want the satisfaction of helping adults take responsibility for their own learning. At the same time, we will be most grateful to those instructors who use the process and encounter any difficulties or who have new ways of extending our ideas if they will let us know about their own experiences. We believe that through ongoing dialogue and exchange of ideas the individualizing instructional process can only be further improved.

Overview of the Contents

This book deals with an individualizing instructional process advocated for instructors or trainers who wish to work with or to develop self-directed adult learners. It provides information about the process and its underlying assumptions, how it works, how it is maintained, and about the role of learners. In addition, some variations on the process in terms of its usage are described. Finally, various research findings that undergird the process and that contributed to its evolvement are summarized throughout the book. Our intent is to personalize the information, not only to entice your interest as reader, but also to suggest that a fairly informal and highly personal approach is key to the success of an individualizing approach.

Based on some of the related issues described above and our thinking about what we wanted to share with you, we believe there are at least nine important questions that an instructor of adults will want to ask in evaluating the individualizing process:

Chapter One provides some insight into why an individualizing instructional process has considerable potential for working with adult learners. Chapter Two presents some background information about adults and adulthood and describes the importance of facilitating adult learning. Then each question presented above serves as a focal point for nine subsequent chapters. A concluding chapter talks about how to ensure success in using the individualizing process. We believe the book provides you with a comprehensive guide to facilitating and individualizing adult instruction.

The twelve chapters are divided into three parts and they are followed by an extensive resources section. Part One, consisting of five chapters, is devoted to helping you decide when it is appropriate to use individualizing approaches in your instructional efforts. As noted above, the first chapter provides an introduction to what we mean by individualizing instruction as a procedure for enhancing the potential that is within each of us. In essence, we believe it is crucial for adults to be involved in deciding what will be learned, how it will be learned, and how the learning will be evaluated. We maintain that this enlarged role for learners is consistent with much of the educational and training literature produced in the past 20 years, and is supported by considerable research on self-directed learning preferences. In this chapter, as well as in all other chapters, we provide at least one vignette to establish a setting for the subsequent information. We also offset and number sequentially key points to aid the reader in summarizing and reviewing our thinking.

The second chapter presents some background information on adults and adulthood in the belief that it is necessary to understand something about such characteristics if we are to have success in our instructional efforts. Various mental, physical, emotional, and social characteristics are described.

Chapter Three presents some information in answer to the first of the nine questions: What are some instructional techniques effective in individualized instruction? Our six-step individualizing process model is introduced in this chapter.

Chapter Four responds to the second of these questions: What are the situations, audiences, and kinds of content conducive to individualizing instruction? In other words, how can you know when it is appropriate to use an individualizing process as opposed to some other approach.

Chapter Five concludes Part One and looks at the learner's responsibility in any learning endeavor. It provides information on question three: How is individual ownership of learning experiences promoted?

Part Two describes some of the fundamentals that are necessary to master if you plan to individualize your instructional efforts. The first chapter in this section, Six, sets the scene for the following question: How can the individualizing of instruction be established? To answer this question, what happens during each of the six steps in the individualizing process is described. More traditional or formal educational settings primarily are used for examples of how the process is implemented. The reader anxious to understand how the individualizing process works may wish to read this chapter first and then move back to earlier chapters for background information or forward to Chapters Ten and Eleven for more elaboration on the use of the process in various settings or with various audiences.

The next three chapters in Part Two, Seven, Eight, and Nine, provide information on some basic tools an instructor can employ to maximize the individualizing process. In Chapter Seven, discussion focuses on the importance of assessing learning needs and provides information on another guiding question: How can what the learner knows and needs to know be determined?

Chapter Eight describes what we believe is a crucial tool in facilitating individualized learning activities, the learning contract. The following question guides discussion in this chapter: How can learning contracts be used to enhance individualizing instruction?

Chapter Nine concludes Part Two by providing information on the following question: How can the individualizing of instruction and learning be evaluated? Various techniques for and approaches to evaluating both teaching and learning are discussed.

Part Three provides some insight on how to use and be successful with the individualizing process in different settings and with various audiences. The first chapter in this section, Ten, answers the question, How can you individualize instruction in non-traditional learning settings? Chapter Eleven provides information about employing individualizing approaches with two different audiences and answers the question: How can you individualize instruction with various audiences? The final chapter in this section, Chapter Twelve, shows how instructors can realize success through the individualizing instructional process.

A resource section aimed at providing supplemental material on numerous topics concludes the book. The section is divided into two parts. Resource A, "A Guide to Practical Application," is intended for the reader who is looking for tips, materials, or examples that can be adapted for immediate use with learners. It contains nine individual units. They range from answers to several questions commonly asked about the individualizing process to various needs assessment techniques, sample evaluation forms, and specific learning activity ideas. Resource B, "Research and Theory," presents more advanced information based on current research and theory related in some way to adult teaching and learning. Such topics as self-directed learning, learning styles, the physical learning environment, and needs assessment are covered. This part will be of most interest to the reader who already has considerable understanding of the individualizing process or who wishes to pursue research or additional reading on some aspect of individualizing instruction.

We conclude this preface with the same message we use to end our workshops on instructing adults or a formal graduate course on instructional methods and techniques. We can only provide a foundation from which you must extract, synthesize, and adapt those elements that fit your personality, preferences, and predilections. In all of this we wish you much success and will be pleased to receive your reactions, ideas for improving the instruction of adults, and contributions to our own continual growth as educators of adults.


Writing a book is an arduous task even when two friends and colleagues do the writing. Add to this nearly two thousand miles that separated us for long periods of time, and the task grew even greater. But we owe much to numerous unnamed individuals who shaped our thinking and offered stimulation and encouragement when the process seemed endless. Without their assistance, the book would not have been possible.

We owe much to several leaders in the field of adult education whose persistence and imagination have left an indelible mark on our lives. The pioneering work of Cyril Houle, Malcolm Knowles, Howard McClusky, and Allen Tough whose pioneering work in understanding how adults learn, under what conditions such learning occurs, and how people use various community resources for learning influenced us beyond description. Their work laid the foundation upon which this book is written and we gratefully acknowledge them for this.

To our countless students who challenged and inspired us to improve our instruction and to find a way of nurturing the potential in all of us, we thank you. At the same time, we apologize for our frequent experimentation with new techniques and ideas, trusting you realize we did so in our quest to be the best instructors we could be.

Thanks are due to Lynn Luckow of Jossey-Bass for his patience and understanding, to Alan Knox at the University of Wisconsin, whose comments on early drafts proved to be invaluable in helping us organize the book in a more intelligible manner, and to other early readers who provided useful suggestions.

Finally, to our wives, Janet Hiemstra and Ellen Sisco, and our children, Nancy and David Hiemstra and Geoffrey and Jessica Sisco, who supported us through the best and worst of times, we want to express our gratitude. We are indebted to them for their constant supply of patience which should have been exhausted long ago. As a small token of our appreciation, we lovingly dedicate this book to each of them.

Roger Hiemstra

Burton Sisco


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