Bently T. Facilitation: Providing Opportunities for Learning.Maidenhead: McGraw Book Company; 1994

The Practice-Based Educator: A reflective tool for CPD and accreditation. 2018. (accessed 08 January 2018)

Pedagogical and andragogical Learning. 2015. (accessed 08 January 2018)

Jarvis P. Adult and Continuing Education: Theory and Practice, 2nd edn. London: Routledge; 1995

Knowles MS. The Adult Learner.London: Butterworth-Heinmann; 1998

Kolb DA. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall; 1984

Maslow A. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.New York, NY: Viking Press; 1971

Quinn F, Hughes SJ. Quinn's Principles and Practice of Nurse Education, 6th edn. Andover: Cengage Learning; 2013

Rogers A. Teaching Adults, 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: Open University Press; 1996

Rogers C. Freedom to Learn.Oakland, CA: University of California; 1969

Are students ‘empty vessels’, or can previous experience enhance future practice?

02 February 2018
Volume 26 · Issue 2


In the pedagogical model used in the education of children since the 19th century (Hill, 2015), the educationalist has control and decides the content and mode of delivery, with the students as ‘empty vessels’ or passive recipients of information. In contrast, adult learners are self-directing, having a repertoire of experience and are internally motivated to learn subject matter that can be applied immediately (Knowles, 1998). Each student's previous experience not only makes their learning individual, but also has the potential to enrich the learning experiences of their peers and positively impact on the quality of care received by women and their babies.

This article will consider the theory on how adults learn best, identifying the link between previous experience and the acquisition and application of new knowledge, and will go on to focus on the experiences of Laney Holland, a third-year student midwife, as an example of the potential for previous experiences to enhance midwives' future practice.

In order to address the learning needs of adults, the educationalist should have a sound understanding of the general characteristics of adult learners: namely differences in age, learning styles and expectations. There is, however, an important commonality in that they are all motivated, voluntary participants (Rogers, 1996; Quinn and Hughes, 2013). Adult learners are self-directing, have a repertoire of experience, and are internally motivated to learn subject matter that can be applied immediately (Knowles, 1998). Learning theories such as humanism (Maslow, 1981; Rogers 1996); andragogy (Knowles, 1998) and experiential learning (Kolb, 1984) are important facets of, and perspectives on, adult learning theory.

In the context of adult learning, it has been suggested that the most effective learning takes place if adult learners can have ownership of their learning, facilitated by the educationalist (Rogers, 1996). The term ‘facilitator’ comes from the Latin ‘facilitas’, meaning ‘easiness’, and is the root of the verb ‘facilitate’. The idea of a facilitator stems from the work of Carl Rogers (1969), who championed self-directed, reflective student-centred learning. In short, facilitators provide the support, opportunities and resources for learning to take place, rather than controlling and managing learning themselves (Bently, 1994).

Register now to continue reading

Thank you for visiting British Journal of Midwifery and reading some of our peer-reviewed resources for midwives. To read more, please register today. You’ll enjoy the following great benefits:

What's included

  • Limited access to our clinical or professional articles

  • New content and clinical newsletter updates each month