Barbara Bruce is a facilitator with a passion for learning and teaching about learning.  She lives part of the year in Western NY and part in Northern Florida. She can be reached at or

How Do I Teach Adult Learners?

This is an excellent question. Below are some great ways to approach adult learning


First things first – all adults learn differently.  If you attempt to teach primarily by lecture, you will lose a good number of your adult learners.  Trust me.  Some adults learn by lecture, but many do not.  87% of adult learners self report to being “visual learners”.  I am one of them.  If I can see it, I can understand it.

Some adults learn best through music, others through movement, still others through wrestling with problem solving activities.  In short we all have specific preferences for learning.  One of the greatest gifts you can give your students is to discover and respond to your students most preferred ways of knowing.  For more information on this fascinating topic, check a copy of “7 Ways of Teaching the Bible to Adults.” (Abingdon Press)  The book needs to be updated to include the 8th Intelligence.”


As facilitator, you may assume that your students know some basic biblical information.  DO NOT GO THERE.  A tried and true method of insuring that students get the most out of a biblical story is to use the WHAT? – SO WHAT? – NOW WHAT? strategy.

WHAT? addresses the issue of the basics of the story.  For example in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) do NOT assume that everyone knows what a Samaritan is or how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  These basic facts add incredible depth to this story.  Also who is a Levite? or a Priest?  Making sure that the background provided broadens the effects of this story.

The next step in this process is “SO WHAT?”  What does this story have to do with me?  The Bible is a living book with guidance for our lives today.   It can not – must not be simply a neat story that took place roughly 2000 years ago.  Questions like, “When have you “walked on the other side?”  “When have you been the Samaritan?  When have you helped someone in need (not just by the side of the road). This kind of question draws learners into the story.

The last step in this critical sequence is the transformational piece.  NOW WHAT? takes your involvement in scripture to a greater level by considering how knowing this informational teaching/learning will change your behavior.

Using this three step strategy is essential if we are to learn about how the Bible still speaks to us today.


Yet another strategy that I use all the time is to ask for several “right answers”.  If I ask a question and someone gives me an answer and we move right along – we are not doing our job facilitating the learning process.  I will often ask for “5 right answers”.  If one person gives an answer and we move along, no one else has to think!  If you ask for 5 (or 3 to begin) right answers you will get learners actually thinking and responding out of their understanding.  It is a powerful learning strategy.


Another aspect of having the right answer is “it is perfectly O.K. for you, as facilitator, to say, ”I don’t know – let’s find out together.”  I love to use the “% Theory” of facilitating.  I am fairly confident that I know at least 1% more than my students, but I am not necessarily the “keeper of the answers”.  Many times adults are reluctant to answer a question because they fear that they do not know enough about the Bible to answer.  These two strategies help to lessen that fear


I do not like “absolutes”, but I am going to suggest that you NEVER call upon a person by name to read.  It is wiser and much less threatening to ask for a volunteer.  I have seen this happen where someone will be called upon to read (or to answer) and they are embarrassed by their (real or perceived) lack of knowledge or ability.


Further addressing what I just said about absolutes, please make it a habit to ALWAYS establish “Ground Rules” when beginning a class.  Respect and Confidentiality are premium rules to establish and others can be added to meet specific needs.  Adults have left the church because of something that was shared in a Bible study class was repeated and gossiped about


It is perfectly O.K. to deviate from the curriculum.  Feel free to go with a “teachable moment”.  I taught a 12 week Bible study that lasted nearly 5 months.  As we addressed issues in the lesson plan, students wanted to know more – Let interest and need to know more guide you.

Lastly, remember that adults learn only what they WANT to learn.