A later version appeared in C.R. Dills & A.J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development paradigms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1997.

Burton Sisco


University of Wyoming

Laramie, Wyoming


During the past fifteen years, a significant number of books, articles, and conference proceedings have appeared focusing on adults as learners. Many organizations such as colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of adults returning to the classroom for skill improvement, job advancement, and personal understanding. In business and industry, training programs to help workers keep current and competitive are growing exponentially. As we look to the future, more and more adults from all walks of life will be continuing their learning in a myriad of settings.

Various North American authors have written about adults as learners. For example, Apps (1981) talks about adults who are returning to college campuses. Smith and Associates (1990) devote an entire book to the concept of learning how to learn across the lifespan. Mezirow (1991) describes the dynamics of how adults learn and how their perceptions are transformed by learning. Merriam and Caffarella (1992) synthesize much of the research on adult learning and offer a typology for organizing this literature. Merriam (1993) reviews a number of promising theories pertaining to learning in adulthood. Authors from other parts of the world, such as Jarvis (1985), Tennant (1988), and Candy (1991) have also focused attention on adults as learners.

Despite this growing literature on adult learning, the actual process of instructing adults has received far less attention until recently. Certainly, a good deal of work has been given to the andragogical process, an instructional approach popularized by Knowles (1980). Over the past twenty years, Knowles has written extensively about andragogy, which he refers to as a system of concepts related to teaching adults.

A parallel area of writing and research that has implications for adult instruction is the growing body of knowledge about self-directed learning. Various researchers, using Tough's (1979) seminal research on adults' learning projects, have demonstrated that mature learners frequently prefer to be in charge of their own learning with only minimal direction from an instructor, trainer, or other resource. Both of these areas of study have prompted a change in the role of the instructor from that of content giver to that of learning manager, facilitator, and resource locator. It is this changing role and a commitment to individualizing instruction whenever possible for adults, that is a major theme of this chapter. The chapter begins with a look at some of the salient forces impacting education today and why there is greater emphasis on learning in adulthood. Next, it looks at a number of dominant philosophies that have guided educational practice in the United States since its early history and suggests that many adult educators are now articulating an eclectic view about teaching and learning. This eclectic view is described in some detail under the rubric of effective learning in adulthood. The chapter then introduces a model for instructing adults and highlights some of the advantages of using the model.


The continuing growth in the number of adults involved annually in training or educational endeavors is a worldwide phenomenon. Although there are similarities in the types of learning activities, there are some unique differences across countries and cultural boundaries. For example, many totalitarian societies use adult education as a means of political indoctrination, while under-developed countries use it to improve literacy, to increase occupational competence, or for furtherance of community development. The developed world often uses adult education for similar purposes in addition to promoting personal satisfaction, personal improvement, coping skills, and civic responsibility.

Although there are many social changes affecting people throughout the world today, within the United States at least four forces have stimulated significant interest by adults in learning. The first of these includes the ever increasing rate of social change, the expanding awareness of global conditions, and the constancy of advancing technology. These trends have resulted in a continuous need for new skills, increased technical knowledge, and improved basic literacy. As a result, many adults are enrolled in adult basic education programs, high school completion efforts, and vocational education programs.

A second force is the mounting job obsolescence faced by many adults. The educational response has been midcareer counseling, retraining for displaced workers, and re-careering through extensive partnerships between industry and post-secondary education.

The third force is the undeniable fact that the American population is a steadily aging one. A slowing birth rate, increased longevity, and the crush of "baby boomers" born after World War II have lead to a population aging faster than ever before in our history. The result has been a large pool of older adults both interested in and demanding greater educational services.

A fourth force is the changing life-styles of many Americans. Two- income families, single-parent families, experiments with new family arrangements, and efforts to enhance individual development are only a few of the many changes in life-styles today. Educational institutions have responded to these changes in a variety of ways by sponsoring self-study formats, daily workshops and weekend conferences. There is every reason to expect that such impacts and changes will continue for some time and actually lead to new and exciting forms of teaching and learning that will have significant implications for instructional design. In the next section, some of the dominant educational philosophies in the history of the United State are presented along with how these views have merged into a different approach to teaching and learning in adulthood.


Essentialism to Eclecticism

There are a number of dominant philosophies that have guided educational practice in the United States for some time. For example, essentialism has been a pervasive force in American education for much of the country's history. Its goal has been to help shape the individual's knowledge and values through the transmission of cultural essentials. The emphasis has been on content mastery, with instructors serving primarily as transmitters of knowledge. Essentialists believe that schools play a vital role in the development and maintenance of society and their role is to pass current knowledge on to youth in their formative years.

Another significant educational philosophy is that espoused by progressive scholars such as John Dewey (1938, 1956). Dewey believed that education was a continuous process of reconstructing experiences and that learners should play an active role in the learning process. He also maintained that an instructor's role was to guide the learning process and that the school is a social institution that should both reflect and enhance culture. The present emphasis by John Goodlad (1990, 1994) and others on school restructuring and renewal is reminiscent of progressive ideals.

Liberalism is another philosophical approach that has had significant impact on education in the Western world (Elias & Merriam, 1980). Rooted in classical Greek philosophy, liberal education was a foundation for early Christian approaches to education as well as a predominant force in early American schooling. The emphasis on developing the intellectual powers of individuals by exposure to classical thinkers was further developed in American higher education and also formed the basis of early adult education efforts in the United States, such as the Great Books Program.

There has been and continues to be considerable debate between the essentialists and those who believe in a liberal education. Even among adult educators, there are many differences regarding the purposes of education and the role adults play in the learning process. Some feel that the purpose of adult education is to help develop mature individuals who will contribute positively to society. Others believe that the aim is to liberate and empower the individual mind. Still others believe that the education of adults should focus on keeping individuals current in a rapidly changing occupational and technological world. There are also many educators who fall somewhere in between these beliefs and those who have been affected by behavioral, humanistic, or radical beliefs. Elias and Merriam (1980) provide an excellent summary of these various belief systems.

It is clear that many instructors of adults have become eclectic in their philosophical bases. They have selected elements from various philosophies, doctrines, values and belief systems, an approach that best fits their instructional needs and situations. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990), for example, have drawn heavily from various educational philosophies in building their Individualizing Instruction Model. They have been influenced by humanistic beliefs (see especially the Brockett chapter in this book), arguing that instructors should help learners take an active role in the educational process and that instructors themselves should become facilitators. They have also been influenced by behaviorists who emphasize detailed planning with prescribed outcomes by using learning contracts that help learners specify what, when, and how they will learn something. This eclectic view has a number of implications for organizing instruction for adults, beginning with an enlarged role of the learner in the educational process.

Enlarged Learner's Role

The use of facilitator techniques in which learners are encouraged to take an active role in the entire learning process is an eclectic derivation from instructional practices for adults. This role includes participating in various activities, such as assessing individual learning needs, planning content emphases and methodological approaches, and serving as a learning resource in the educational setting. Usually, because of this active role, learners take greater responsibility for their learning efforts.

Many researchers have demonstrated that mature learners prefer to be in charge of their own learning, even in formal classroom settings (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991; Brookfield, 1985; Knowles, 1975; Long & Associates, 1988). McClusky (1964), in relating psychological theory to the field of adult education, suggested that the adult learner is both autonomous and independent. He concluded that learning activities should be problem centered, facilitate active participation, and be highly meaningful to the adults concerned.

There are many ways in which learners can greatly increase their self-directed learning skills and enhance their personal control of decision making. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) identify at least nine instructional variables that learners can control in an individualizing process. The level of control between a learner and facilitator varies from situation to situation.

Learners are encouraged to seek a variety of ways to link the learning activities to the practical realities of home, job, and community. They also have the freedom of selecting a range of written or mediated resources to strengthen their command of the subject matter, especially after the learning experience is completed and new needs arise.

Teacher as Facilitator

Another eclectic belief about adults as learners concerns the instructor's role in the learning process. Traditionally, the role of an instructor was to impart knowledge to receptive learners. We see this type of instructional practice in K-12 settings as well as in colleges and universities. However, this type of instruction is far less sensible when mature adult learners are involved, since they bring a variety of experiences to the learning situation and prefer being in control of their learning.

But does this mean that instructors should ignore content or subject matter so that adult learners are more involved? The answer to this question is yes and no, since there are many times when instructors will need to maintain control to varying degrees over the topics studied because of the nature of the subject and the learners' limited background. For example, an instructor in a continuing professional education session for physicians may posses the latest information about the deadly disease AIDS and need to impart that information in as direct, quick, and efficient manner as possible. A business trainer may be working with a group of executives on a new management technique and must therefore be concerned about time, cost, and efficiency in getting the material across.

In most situations involving adult learners, time is much less a factor than is instructor control and giving up old habits. In fact, an instructor in a facilitator role will need to believe in the overall potential of promoting self-direction in learning, accept input, criticism, and independence, and seek out a variety of learning resources. Changing one's approach or attitudes toward instruction and the potential of mature learners may be the most difficult step to take, but it is a step well worth taking in the long run.

Stimulating the Learners to Learn

An important variable in facilitation lies in providing an environment that stimulates learners to become excited about a subject matter so they will want to excel. This often entails helping learners locate a variety of resources and reinforcing the notion that they can use these resources in the discovery of new ideas.

Research evidence supports the contention that the facilitative approach to instruction does in fact promote a positive attitude toward learning. Cole and Glass (1977), Pine (1980), and Verdros and Pankowski (1980) have studied the impact of personally involving adults in assessing needs, determining instructional approaches, and carrying out instructional activities. In general, these researchers found that individualized involvement usually does not affect content mastery. However, they noted a correlation between ownership and learning satisfaction, as well as a greater desire to study the content further after the formal learning experience ended.

Even though considerable research has shown that many adults prefer to be self-directed and in charge of their learning, the moment that some adults enter any formal classroom or training setting they revert to prior teacher-centered expectations. In this case, the instructor's role should become one of encouraging learners to be more self-directing, to help them be more involved in the instructional process, and to reinforce the importance of being responsible for their own actions. By modeling facilitative behaviors, encouraging personal responsibility, and selecting a wide range of teaching and learning methods, instructors of adults can and will be more effective.


Clearly, the form and content of teaching has begun to change in the eighties and nineties and there is every reason to believe this trend will continue into the twenty-first century. The importance of keeping up with change, increasing amounts of leisure time, more education at younger ages, and the public's acceptance of lifelong learning as the norm are some of the reasons for this trend. Concomitantly, an increasing recognition that adults often require or at least desire nontraditional instructional styles and uses of instructor's expertise have lead to the development of an individualizing process of instruction (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990). Before describing this model, a look at three broad approaches to instruction enunciated by Jarvis (1985), "didactic, socratic, and facilitative" may be useful since they necessitate quite different roles for teachers and learners:

1. Didactic-the instructor controls most of the direction and content through a lecture format. Learners are expected to acquire and retain knowledge primarily through memorization.

2. Socratic-the instructor uses questions to take the learner through a prepared and logical sequence of content acquisition. Learners are expected to respond to the questions. 3. Facilitative-the instructor creates an educational environment in which learning can occur. A variety of instructional techniques can be used. Learner are expected to assume increasing responsibility for specific content determination and acquisition.

The notion that the instructor is an expert who dispenses knowledge to learners is central to the first two models. Learners are viewed as empty vessels into which content is poured, rather than maturepeople who can assume responsibility for their own learning. This criticism is not meant to denigrate techniques such as lecturing, socratic questioning and discussion, or standardized testing since all can be used effectively in an individualized instructional approach. Yet, the successful instructor of adults is one who uses facilitation techniques and serves as a manager of the various learning transactions rather than simply providing expert information.

There are a number of specific roles that instructors must undertake in any facilitative approach that has individualization as an intended educational goal. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) identify eight such roles that contribute to more effective teaching and learning of adults.

1. As in more traditional approaches, there will be many instances in which you must serve as a content resource for learners. Instructors usually have considerably more expertise and knowledge about the subject than do learners, and learners will expect this expertise to be shared in various ways. However, using content specialists in areas outside your expertise may be necessary to meet all learning needs.

2. You must take responsibility for managing a process of assessing learner needs rather than presupposing what all those needs might be. The uniqueness of each set of learners necessitates such a role.

3. Once you have uncovered the needs or at least have arrived at some initial understanding of the needs, you will have to arrange and employ the resources necessary for your learners to accomplish their personal goals. In some instances this will require finding or creating new resources, obtaining knowledge or expertise in new areas of relevance to the learning experience, and making outside experts available.

4. We have found it important to use a variety of instructional techniques and devices to maintain learner interest or to present certain types of information. This may seem contrary to our view that each individual must take personal responsibility for learning. But making various techniques and devices available gives learners more control by giving them a wider range of choices and by allowing them to make individual choices.

5. You also need to be aware of techniques for stimulating and motivating learners so that all can reach their potential. Wlodkowski (1985) presents many strategies for motivating adults.

6. Another role is helping your learners develop positive learning attitudes and positive feelings about their ability to be independent. Such attitudes and feelings will vary from learner to learner, with some people having acquired negative feelings about their abilities or past learning experiences. Thus, at times you will need to become a cheerleader or encourager and be willing to spend time helping insecure learners increase their confidence.

7. A very difficult task when learners are using various resources and taking quite different approaches to the achievement of goals is to determine whether or not learners are reflecting on what they have learned. You can help learners accomplish personal reflection through techniques such as small- group discussions, personal interactive journals, theory logs, and statements of personal philosophy.

8. A final role has to do with evaluation of learner progress. You need to evaluate learner achievements in various ways, ranging from more traditional testing to critiquing of written materials to less traditional techniques such as personal interviews with learners. It is also important to stimulate various types of self-evaluation by learners. (pp. 17-18).

Many instructors will find it initially difficult to incorporate all eight of these roles into a personal repertoire of teaching. Some adults who are unfamiliar with an individualizing approach may also find these to be difficult roles. Yet, with dedication, hard work, and a commitment to seeing the process though, instructors and learners new to the process will find success. In the next section, the Individualizing Instruction model is introduced, starting with some assumptions about adults as learners.


As noted earlier, the potential of mature human beings is greatest when instructors systematically provide opportunities for them to make decisions regarding the learning process. The Individualizing Instruction model is rooted in a number of assumptions about the nature of adults, sound principles of learning and instruction, and how to organize instruction effectively. The assumptions are as follows:

1. Adults can and do learn significant things throughout their lives.

2. Educational interventions ought to be organized so that growth and development is the ultimate outcome.

3. The potentiality of humans as learners can only be maximized when there is a deliberate interaction between three elements: the learning process, learning needs and interests, and available instructional resources.

4. When given the opportunity, adults prefer to be in charge of their own learning and actually thrive under such conditions.

5. Adults are capable of self-directed involvement in terms of personal commitment to and responsibility for learning, choice of learning approach, choice of learning resources, and choice of evaluation or validation techniques.

6. An instructor's role is multidimensional, including being a facilitator, manager, resource guide, expert, friend, advocate, authority, coach, and mentor.

7. Empowering learners to take responsibility for their own learning is the ultimate aim of education.

8. Educational interventions ought to promote a match between the needs of each learner and the needs of the instructor.

9. Teaching and learning excellence is the result of subject matter expertise, careful planning, a good deal of patience and flexibility, and a commitment to helping learners reach their potential.

10. The Individualizing Instructional process can be utilized in nearly every educational endeavor with commensurate success. (Sisco & Hiemstra, 1991, pp. 60-61)


The Individualizing Instruction model consists of six specific steps (see Figure 1). In each step, an instructor is involved in considerable planning, analyzing, and decision-making as the model is implemented. The model serves as an organizing framework for instructing adults, usually in a group setting such as a course, workshop, or training session, and should be used flexibly as a means of dealing with any individual or institutional constraints. It incorporates many of the instructional design elements presented throughout this book; Hiemstra, in a later chapter, provides a detailed description of how the model is used in a typical adult teaching and learning situation.

Figure 1. Individualizing Instructional Process Model

Step One--Activities Prior to the First Session

There are many activities to plan and decisions to be made before the initial meeting for the learning event. For example, the instructor often starts by developing a course rationale that describes the purpose of the learning experience, why learners should be interested in it, how it will help them professionally, and what competencies or outcomes they can expect to attain. Usually, some attention is given to the requirements of the learning experience, identifying any support materials such as books, articles, or audio/visual tapes, and locating outside speakers for guest presentations. Other preplanning activities typically involve the preparation of a workbook or study guide that includes information about the syllabus, learning activities, bibliographic references, special readings, and other related materials. Some additional preplanning activities often include scheduling a meeting room where the learning event will take place, reserving any required audiovisual equipment, and making sure that the coordinating administrator has all the pertinent information for advertising the learning event.

Step Two--Creating a Positive Learning Environment

Once the learning experience is underway, there are a number of activities that can help ensure a positive learning environment. Ideas to consider include paying attention to the physical layout of the meeting room, scheduling a break midway through the session for refreshments and a restroom visit if needed, and creating a relaxed and trusting environment in which participants are encouraged to meet each other and express their own opinions without risk of retribution. In addition, some thought should be given to introducing the course content, how the participants will get to know one another, and how the instructor will become acquainted with the participants. Sisco and Hiemstra (1991) call this the "Three R's": relationship with the subject matter, relationship with each other, and relationship with the instructor.

Step Three--Developing the Instructional Plan

The next step in the Individualizing Instruction model involves spending time on such matters as potential learning topics, activities, and objectives. This is usually accomplished through a needs assessment procedure that is completed individually by participants and which describes their experience, interest level, and competence. Small groups are often formed for sharing and consensus building. The instructor uses these to develop a learning plan that describes the topics to be studied, in what sequence, and through what kinds of instructional methods and techniques. This learning plan is then given to participants for final review and adoption.

Step Four--Learning Activity Identification

This step is designed to help participants identify what it is they intend to learn, how they are going to learn it, what form the learning will take, when the learning activities are due, and what evaluation strategies will be used to demonstrate mastery of the subject(s) under investigation. A learning contract (O'Donnell & Caffarella, 1990; Knowles, 1986) is typically used here to document the various learning activities, to help participants personalize their learning objectives, and to foster greater control of their learning. Learning activities may take many forms including the interactive reading log, the theory log, and the personalized journal so that learners can synthesize, analyze, and reflect on their newly acquired knowledge.

Step Five--Putting Learning into Action and Monitoring Progress

Once the learning plan has been established, the next step in the Individualizing Instruction model is putting it into action and monitoring progress. A number of instructional techniques are typically used, including lectures and mini-lectures, case studies, role playing, small and large group discussions, individual learning projects, field trips, and so forth. As the learning plan is implemented, the instructor monitors group and individual learner progress through formative evaluations, which permit adjustments to be made as needed.

Step Six--Evaluating Individual Learner Outcomes

The sixth and final step in the Individualizing Instruction model involves evaluating individual learner outcomes. Here the emphasis is on helping learners to demonstrate mastery of their learning objectives and activities as outlined in the personal learning contract. Through the use of the learning contract, each learner describes intended learning activities and the criteria associated with each of them. This "criteria referenced evaluation" process allows learners to document their learning outcomes in many ways, while at the same time emphasizing content mastery, personal development, reflective thinking, and critical observation.

A key ingredient of the six-step Individualizing Instruction model is the promotion of effective educational practice through the creation of an instructional system that celebrates individual differences, experiences, and learning needs. By taking advantage of the resident expertise so common in older, more mature learners, the instructor can create optimum conditions for learning to occur. This is one of the guiding principles of instructional design and certainly is a hallmark of the Individualizing Instruction model. Understanding the instructional process, being flexible and supportive when the need arises, helping learners assume greater control of the learning process, and varying the instructional methods and techniques so that active learning is emphasized, all add up to instructional success.


The purpose of this chapter was to introduce and describe a comprehensive model for teaching adults--the Individualizing Instruction model. The origins of the model may be traced to a bevy of research studies on self-directed learning, the continuing work on andragogy, and an emerging eclectic philosophy combining humanism, behaviorism, and progressive goals into a coherent system of adult instruction. To this mix should be added a number of social forces that are changing the landscape of educational practice from one focusing primarily on youth to one embracing learning throughout life. Indeed, human beings are adults much longer than they are children, and our educational systems ought to embrace this reality. It is hoped that the Individualizing Instruction model will help instructors better understand their roles as change-agents charged with facilitating growth and development in adulthood.


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June 1, 1998

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