Learning Theories in Medical Education

Kimberly E. Casteline, Ph.D.

This is the first in a series of posts about learning theories in medical education. Each will focus on the question: 

How can learning theories inform medical education design?

So let’s get started. The first theory we’ll examine is Constructivist Learning Theory. Despite its tongue twisting first name, this theory was simply explained by its originator, David Ausubel with the statement: “The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.” That is to say that what we think of as learning can more aptly be described as a building project. Sometimes the project is a gut renovation, when learning results in a complete change in what we know about a topic. But more often, learning results in more modest changes, adding to what we already know and combining new knowledge with the old.

That perspective on learning can inform how educators design learning experiences in four key ways:

  1. Knowledge dissemination should be multi-directional, not just from educator to learner. Clinicians’ prior knowledge, experience, and perspectives should be acknowledged and incorporated into the learning experience.
  1. Authority should be shared. Learners need to know that their engagement and input are integral to the learning experience.
  1. Facilitation, guidance, and coaching are some of the key roles of educators.  
  1. Learning communities are most effective when both teacher-to-learner and learner-to-learner sharing are enabled.

Next in this series we’ll look at the Community of Inquiry theory and its application to medical education.

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