Learning theories for healthcare practices


Everyone has their own way of looking at how they learn, and there are many different beliefs across the world about how people can learn most effectively. There are several major theories about learning, all of which have their own perspectives and generalizations about the teaching and learning process. These form the foundations for education and teaching strategies within subjects such as education, workplace organization, psychological and psychiatric counseling, and health education.

A paper listed in The National Library of Medicine states that learning theories are the main guide for educational systems planning in clinical training and in the classroom for nurses. By understanding the underlying principles of these theories, teachers can use their knowledge more effectively according to the various learning situations that are in place. This allows them to serve their students and, by extension, the patients being looked after in healthcare more effectively.

According to Frontiers in Medicine, health professions education (HPE) is a field of expertise that is applied to the education of healthcare practitioners catering to the requirements of students. It is used to develop, implement and evaluate all aspects of the health profession’s curriculum. The strategies are constantly being monitored and are evolving to suit the needs of the population being served and the improvements and developments made within healthcare.

Because theory and practice are linked and inform one another, understanding learning theories helps researchers and academics understand the way knowledge is acquired and how to measure the resulting learning outcomes. Any improved perception will then impact the understanding of various educators within different contexts, including teaching, mentoring, curriculum development, academic leadership, and learner assessment. This means that appropriate learning theories can be implemented based on which one is best, whether it is at the individual, group, or community level and in different educational activities.

The five main theories applied to healthcare practice are behaviorist, cognitive, social learning, psychodynamic, and humanistic. Here is a closer look at each one.

Behaviorist learning theory

Behaviorist learning theory defines learning as a change in behavior in a desired direction. This occurs through various techniques, such as rewards and encouragement for desired behavior, repetition, feedback, and reinforcement for desired corrections in the behavior so they are maintained. This system relies on continuous repetition and is done in small chunks with the aim of leading up to a long-term change in behavior.

To modify people’s responses and attitudes, behaviorists will alter stimulus conditions in a particular environment or change what happens after the student responds. Complacent or satisfied individuals have very little motivation to change and learn. For example, someone without much experience with hospitals may have to visit a relative who is ill and may smell unpleasant odors when in the room with them and feel queasy, lightheaded, and anxious. After these visits, hospitals may become associated with feeling nauseous and anxious, especially if a visitor smells things similar to those they encountered during their first visit.

Within healthcare, this kind of respondent conditioning shows the importance of a facility’s atmosphere and its effect on staff morale. Without thinking, both patients and visitors may develop these associations as a result of their experiences. This may then shape long-lasting attitudes toward these facilities and healthcare professionals.

However, conditioning can also be used to alter one of these previously learned responses. For example, if the visitor who felt nauseous in the first hospital goes to another hospital and doesn’t smell the same unpleasant odors, their discomfort and anxiety about hospitals may decrease after several visits.

Cognitive learning theory

Cognitive learning theory refers to internal cognitive restructuring made due to someone’s knowledge or “schemata”. The definition of cognitive learning theory is related to conscious intellectual activity such as reasoning, remembering, or thinking. Learners will use tools such as information, processing, insight, perceptions, and memories to facilitate learning. Thus, the learner will develop the skills and capacity for self-directed learning with the teacher facilitating the learner, so they ultimately learn how to learn.

Within the cognitive psychology of learning, there is the activation of prior knowledge while simultaneously processing new information and the elaboration of that new knowledge so it can be stored in long-term memory.

For example, when first-year medical students are presented with new information from a medical textbook, they will first activate previous knowledge from high school or college biology to help them interpret this new information, thereby using prior knowledge to construct the new knowledge. This new knowledge is then moved to long-term memory to be used for subsequent learning or applications.

This knowledge must be biologically consolidated in memory for it to survive, and it is biochemical in nature first and then synaptic. The subsequent retrievability of this information will be influenced by the extent to which students apply their knowledge in the right contexts.

Social learning theory

Social learning theory, which is sometimes referred to as observational learning theory, states that people can learn new behaviors by observing others. This is a contrast to earlier learning theories that looked at how people behave in response to environmental stimuli, such as physical rewards or punishment. Social learning emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between people, as well as how motivated and able an individual is to reproduce the behaviors they see happening around them. In this theory, people influence and are also influenced by the world around them.

In short, social learning theory says that people learn by:

  • Observing what other people do
  • Considering the consequences experienced by those individuals
  • Thinking about and mentally rehearsing what may happen within their own lives if they follow other people’s behavior
  • Taking action by trying the behavior themselves
  • Comparing their experiences to what happened to the other people
  • Confirming their belief in the new behavior

Psychodynamic learning theory

Psychodynamic thinking is a method of reflecting on and making sense of the ways in which people relate to others, themselves, and the outside world. The basis is the assumption that there are reasons people behave and relate to others in specific ways, whether rationally or irrationally, and that these reasons may not be immediately easy to identify in the person involved. It also states that there are dynamics underlying the feelings of individuals and behaviors that are constantly changing.

For example, this can be particularly helpful for nurses in understanding the difficulties faced by other, less experienced colleagues when they have to deal with patients’ emotions and managing their feelings during emotional caring work.

Humanistic learning theories

The humanistic learning theory focuses on how the relationship between the nurse and patient will develop, in addition to the patient’s mental and physical health. It looks at the patient, individual, and each situation as completely unique. According to Nursing Theory, this is based on the belief that patients can grow creatively and healthily. This stems from the work of Josephine Paterson and Loretta Zderad, who believed that educating nurses should be based on experience and focus on the nurse’s ability to interact with and relate to patients as well as their scientific and medical knowledge.

This approach does not entail any formulaic methods or processes in the care of patients, as each one is assessed and treated on a case-by-case basis.

How learning theories are applied to healthcare studies

In healthcare, nurses are often responsible for implementing and designing plans and procedures for encouraging wellness and health education. Outside of work, the knowledge of learning processes relates to nearly every aspect of everyone’s day-to-day life. Nurses can apply theories at the individual, group, and community levels, not simply to understand and teach new material and tasks but also to help change unhealthy habits, build constructive relationships, solve problems, manage emotions and develop effective behavior.

The learning theories are rooted in three primary strategies: behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. As an educational model, it focuses on a teacher-centered approach to learning in which the teacher develops the environment designed to achieve a desired response. It promotes and emphasizes the value of feedback in the learning environment.

By understanding this theory, medical educators can establish and communicate key learning objectives and expectations, along with practical assessment strategies, using behavioral management techniques toward fulfilling the goals of the curriculum.

With a cognitive approach, the learner will interpret and process the information they receive rather than doing it via a conditional behavior. This means that learning occurs when the student mentally processes and then reorganizes information through discovering or adapting knowledge they already have. Instruction will be designed to capture the attention of the learner and create valuable opportunities for them to actively participate in the process.

The basis of constructivism is that acquired knowledge will be unique to the individual learner through the construction of new ideas that are based on previous experience and knowledge. To make this effective, the learner needs basic knowledge of what is being taught. Therefore, the educators who employ this approach need to match their level of instruction to the learner’s level of understanding.

How to identify your own learning style

While educators are concerned with theories and strategies for teaching students and implementing policy, and developing curriculum, learners themselves can identify what learning styles suit them.

Each individual has different learning preferences and styles. Some may have a dominant style, while others might prefer changing their learning styles depending on the circumstances and what is being taught. There is no right or wrong answer, but it is an important part of a student’s responsibilities as they progress to understand what suits them best so they can learn most effectively.

The best-known styles are visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic

Visual learners learn by sight and benefit from tools such as images, diagrams, graphics, visuals, charts, mind maps, maps, and flash cards. One of the benefits of being a visual learner is that the human brain processes visual information faster than plain text. This means those who learn this way can take in and retain a lot of information quickly.

Auditory learners take in information most effectively by hearing and benefit from methods such as speaking, listening, group discussions, sound recordings, mnemonic devices, and verbal repetition. They will often not be afraid to put their hand up and give an opinion or ask a question in a classroom setting.

Those who learn best by reading and writing will benefit from making detailed notes, viewing information, rewriting notes, reading and writing. They need time to process what they have learned and will often look at the information they received multiple times.

Kinesthetic learners learn by touch and find methods such as movement, models and materials, physical interactions, hands-on work, and tactile representations most successful.

All are valid, useful, and easily catered to once it is understood what style is most effective in a particular setting.

Lifelong learning in healthcare

Many individuals who seek a career in healthcare will look beyond their initial training and qualifications to a working lifetime of learning and development. This will be achieved through a combination of workplace training, extra qualifications, and self-development, which will involve understanding the world outside of the system to engage with patients and staying on top of educational developments and opportunities by reading magazines, books, and website articles.

The employer will have systems in place for development, but it is also vital for students to identify which skills they need to improve as they progress and work with their departments or schools to progress these skills.

Continuing education or “competency programs” are designed to develop, maintain and improve people’s competence in practice, research, teaching, and policy. With a healthcare delivery system that is constantly evolving and population changes impacting what is required in the health system, along with constant developments in medication, strategies, and treatments, the need to continually educate will persist.

Academic nursing programs will develop curriculums that place instruction on the cutting edge of development while preparing their graduates to meet the challenges they will face during their career.

Getting the right qualifications

There are many rewarding careers in healthcare, and with the right approach, individuals will be able to find one that suits their personality and skills.

For those who wish to become a registered nurse and earn their qualification in 16 months while studying for a distance ABSN, the accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program at Elmhurst University is designed to support students in achieving their goal online. Candidates require a bachelor’s degree in any discipline as their foundation. After successfully completing the course, they will be prepared to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

Areas covered in these courses include family health, childbearing, and adult health. As part of the adult health curriculum, students will focus on the principles, theories, and processes for adult populations experiencing common health problems within priority areas of care, with an emphasis on nursing care for older adults.

Job prospects

The career prospects in healthcare are excellent, and they continue to expand and evolve. Recent nursing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states the employment of registered nurses is expected to grow 6 percent between 2021 to 2031, with around 203,200 openings projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Critical responsibilities for registered nurses include performing physical exams and taking health histories, administering medications and other interventions, coordinating care in collaboration with other health professionals, and providing health promotion, education, and counseling.

They can work in an array of settings, such as general medical and surgical hospitals, home healthcare services, outpatient care centers, physicians’ offices, and nursing care facilities. In addition, registered nurses can be found in employment services, federal government, continuing care, retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly, elementary and secondary schools, and specialty hospitals.

Registered nurses can specialize in areas such as geriatrics, pediatrics, public health nursing, and nursing administration, or they can choose to further their education and become family nurse practitioners.

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