Learning Theories in Medical Education – Part 2

Kimberly E. Casteline, Ph.D.

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

How can learning theories inform medical educational design?

In the first post we looked at Constructivist Learning Theory. In this post we’re examining the Community of Inquiry theory (CoI). The CoI framework states that students experience a deep and meaningful learning experience when three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence – are enacted in a course. Let’s explore each of those elements and how they can be applied in online learning.

Social presence refers to the learner’s ability to present themselves as a unique, autonomous individual within the group. This basic feature of in-person classroom learning can be easily lost online when instructors don’t actually “see” the learners. Social presence can be initiated from the start of an online course by having instructors and learners introduce themselves to each other either synchronously or asynchronously. Including photos and personal information like hobbies allows learners to personalize each other.

Cognitive presence refers to the process of knowledge acquisition and meaning confirmation through sustained reflection. Creating opportunities for learners to reflect on what they have learned and how it can be applied is essential for cognitive presence. One way to encourage cognitive presence online is through peer-to-peer learning. When appropriate, allow learners to evaluate each other’s work. As they ascertain how others interpret and apply material, learners will also reflect on their own learning. 

Teaching presence refers to the design and implementation of the learning opportunity. One of the most effective ways learners experience teaching presence online is through regular feedback about their work and participation in the course.

The diagram below shows some of the common ways social, cognitive and teaching presence are implemented and how they overlap.

Next in this series we’ll look at Personal Knowledge Mastery and its application to medical online education.

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