When Your Students May be Smarter than You: Teaching Advanced Learners

While some college faculty bemoan the fact that their students are not critical thinkers, expressive writers, or otherwise scholarly inclined; those of us in professional schools, especially at the graduate level, may have the opposite problem. Our students may be so bright they scare our socks off.

In the everyday world, we say off-handedly not to worry about something because it’s not “brain surgery.” However, when our students are residents or fellows in surgery or other similar specialties, we cannot help but feel intimidated. And, an instructor who lacks confidence is rarely an effective instructor. So how do we manage classes, guest lectures, and professional development sessions in our academic areas when we may not be the smartest one in the room? By getting back to the basics of what we know about successful adult education.

In 2001, Cheetham and Chivers produced two articles; “How Professionals Learn – the Theory!” and “How Professionals Learn – the Practice!” They examined components of adult learning theory including behavioral, cognitive, and constructivist approaches, and examined the role of language and cognition. They then applied what they discovered to professional level learners— well educated people working from a sound academic base. Their conclusions were that faculty who teach professional learners must be able to use multiple approaches rather than relying on a single teaching technique. Advanced learners have already developed their own successful approach to learning but we, as instructors, will not know what that is. We must provide several paths to the same content and let learners make an informed decision on which path to take. The role of the instructor is to introduce content and resources and help learners become autonomous and self-directed.

In my own teaching, I have found it helps greatly to balance the ideas of self-direction and autonomous learning with frequent “checks on learning” or points of instructor content. The reason is efficiency. Advanced learners are often under enormous time constraints and autonomous or self- directed learning, while exciting and engaging, can be wildly inefficient when we fall down some attractive intellectual rabbit hole. Learners need to stay connected to the essential content and we can help that process by maintaining a thin and unobtrusive guide wire.

We also need to respect learners’ expertise. Even when very bright learners are not experts in the content we are teaching, they prefer to be treated more as peers than as students. A collaborative approach works well. Stating the new information then asking them to provide an example from their own experience is often successful. Placing the new content in context is also useful. Being clear about what you are about to discuss, and why they will find it helpful is a good approach.

Allowing advanced learners to master basic content in private before asking for classroom performance is also useful. Bright learners are not comfortable when seen struggling to master new content. Provide basics before you meet as a group, but let them know that there will be performance events so they can justify the time they dedicate to mastery.

Finally, do not hesitate to establish your own credibility and credentials. I am not a clinician; I am a PhD in adult education and I can make Bloom’s taxonomy stand up and sing! (And, I can help you do the same.)

Teaching advanced learners can be wonderfully rewarding and is rarely dull. However, it does require advanced preparation and attention to the teaching/learning dynamic to make sure learners respect the content enough to embrace it.

Karen Hughes Miller, PhD, is the Director for Graduate Medical Education Curriculum Design, Evaluation, and Research in the Office of Graduate Medical Education at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Cheetham, G., and Chivers, G. (2001) Part I- How Professionals Learn – the Theory! Journal of European Industrial Training, 25(5); 250-269.

Cheetham, G., and Chivers, G. (2001) Part II- How Professionals Learn – the Practice! Journal of European Industrial Training, 25(5); 270-292.