Dental professionals have extensive knowledge of oral health and disease, but often have limited exposure to adult learning theories and strategies. Dental practitioners may not even think of themselves as adult educators, yet it is something that is central to daily practice. A mistake many dental professionals make is to use the same educational methods for both children and adults. It is important dental professionals recognize these populations come to the dental office with very different experiences and motivations for learning.


Learning is an extremely complex process and attempts to understand the way in which people learn and how it affects behavior dates back to Plato and Aristotle. Research and development of theories about the differences between the way in which children and adults learn intensified in the late 1960s and early 1970s.1

Malcolm Knowles brought the concept of andragogy to the United States from Europe in 1968. Andragogy refers to “the art and science of helping adults learn.”2 Andragogy is based on the assumptions about adult learners that are viewed as ‘good practices’ when educating adults. These assumptions or principles of good practice are:2

  1. Adults come to the learning situation with prior experience.
  2. The adults’ readiness for learning or change is socially situated which means it is impacted by cultural context and social role.
  3. Adults are more problem oriented and seek out learning that is relevant to their personal needs and goals.
  4. Adults are motivated to learn by an internal locus of control.
  5. People move from being dependent on the ‘teacher’ toward being self-directed and autonomous learners.

Other educators have critiqued Knowles theory, but many of the same components are included in a majority of theories of adult learning as well as those of motivational interviewing and health coaching.3,4,5 Even though these principles of good practice for adult education may seem to have little relevance to oral health education, they are in fact critical in the process of effectively educating adult patients. Systematic review articles about clinician-patient communication and effective teaching strategies is appearing with increasing frequency as health care strives to become more patient-centered.5-7