Recognizing Prior Experience of Adult Learners


The first component of any learning situation is to establish an adult teacher-learner relationship. This relationship is developed by creating a climate of trust and mutual respect.1 It is the responsibility of the dental professional to provide a safe and supportive environment in order for learning to occur. The critical skills needed for the educator to create the ideal atmosphere for learning are: accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth and authenticity.4 Accurate empathy refers to “skillful reflective listening” that helps the patients clarify their own experiences and needs.4

Adults do not like to be treated as though they come to the dental office with ‘an empty slate.’ Adults have a rich repository of life experience that is brought to the dental practitioner-patient interaction. The dental professional can be most effective by linking explanations and instruction with the patient’s prior experience.

Another aspect of creating a climate where learning can occur is the dental professional must understand and be non-judgmental in coming to appreciate the patient’s health beliefs. Other cultures and those seeking alternative methods of healthcare may have health beliefs that differ from those held by mainstream America.8 Learners must feel the educator respects their beliefs even though they may be different from the educator’s personal health beliefs. With the diversity that is found in many patient populations, it has also become increasingly important to be aware of the learner’s oral health literacy and English language proficiency as this may negatively impact communication of self-care information and health outcomes.9

The dental professional should ask open-ended questions to encourage patients to explain past experiences and how they relate to current oral health issues.10 Open-ended questions usually start with words like: ‘how,’ ‘why,’ ‘what’ and ‘tell me.’ Examples of open-ended questions include:

  • “What concerns do you have about your mouth?”
  • “Tell me about your past experiences with dental treatment.”
  • “What methods have you used in the past to clean between your teeth?”
  • “What do you know about how to prevent gum (periodontal) disease?”