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Introduction to educational theories

Students gathered around a medical dummy in a bed
© University of East Anglia

There are a number of educational theories that underpin the practice of teaching and learning.


Knowles suggests that adult learners share the following characteristics:

  • Independent and self-directed learners
  • Use accumulated experience as a scaffold for new learning
  • Value integration of new learning into their existing commitments
  • Value problem-centred approaches to learning
  • Have internal drivers for motivation to learn
  • Need to know why and how learning benefits the learner

These characteristics need to be considered in planning teaching-learning events for adult learners.

Constructivist theory

Learning occurs through the construction of new ideas or concepts built upon the learners’ existing knowledge and experiences. Tutors could facilitate this approach by encouraging questioning and reflection in order to integrate new information. This forms the basis of teaching methods such as problem-based learning where learners use a case scenario to establish what they already know and identify additional learning needs to address the scenario being discussed.

Behaviourist Theory

Learning is an aspect of conditioning using a system of rewards and targets in education; thus learning occurs through a response to environmental stimuli. For example, in teaching clinical skills, the skill is first modelled by tutor; the learner observes what the expert tutor demonstrates and models their practice on this aided by instruction and feedback from tutors.

Social cognitive theory

Learning is a social phenomenon which occurs through observing and interacting with others, and with our environment. Social cognitive theory emphasizes the roles of cognition and the environment in mediating learning. Within clinical environments, this theory can best be demonstrated through learning that occurs through group work, from role models, or non-verbal and verbal communication. Closely linked to this is the notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD)’ described by Vygotsky. The ZPD is a zone between what learners can do unaided and what they cannot do, where learners can complete tasks with guidance or through interaction with more capable peers.

Communities of practice

Lave and Wenger proposed the notion of a ‘community of practice’ (CoP) to describe a group of people with a common profession or a shared interest. CoPs can occur because of the shared interest or can develop over time to share knowledge and experiences and learn from each other in a particular field. CoPs can be physical or virtual depending on whether the collaboration occurs in a physical setting or in an online environment.

Learning styles

Each individual might have preferences for how they learn. Several validated tools are available to enable learners to identify their preferred styles of learning. However, in recent years, the importance of learning styles to learning has been questioned on the basis of a lack of evidence to suggest that learning is most effective when delivered in a preferred style. In practice however, when teaching a large group, educators could make use of a variety of methods to ensure learner engagement.

© University of East Anglia
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