University of Stirling

School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health

Mentor Programme


Learning Theories

There are many theories of how people learn.  This section is going to briefly review just some of these; androgogy, constructivist theory, experiential learning, social learning theory and situated learning theory.  Extensive reading would be required to ensure broad understanding of these concepts.   See, for example the Theory into Practice (TIP 2006) database for 50 educational theories (there is a web link on the “Resources” page).

A useful way of considering learning and teaching theories is to place them on a continuum:

Virginia Tech continuum

Virginia Tech (2006)

There is a link on the Resources page to the Virginia Tech (2006) Design Shop, where several theories are grouped according to the continuum given above.

Androgogy is a theory proposed by Knowles (1990).  He argued that adults are a neglected species in education, with most educational research being about children's education.  He developed his theory of androgogy to explain how adults learn.  What Knowles suggested about adult learners is that:

  • adults need to know that what is to be learned is relevant to them and be involved in its planning;
  • adults see themselves as responsible for their own decisions and need to be seen as self-directing;
  • past experience will have a bearing on their current learning situation;
  • adults are most ready to learn if they need to know something in order to cope with real life;
  • adult learning is problem-centred not subject-centred.

This idea from androgogy, that adults come to learning with their own agenda, fits with constructivist theory.  Constructivism is a very rich theory, with many branches to it.  The basic premise is that the learner is not a blank slate (a tabla rasa) on which new knowledge is inscribed, but that a learner makes new meaning by integrating the new into a pre-existing network of understanding.  With experience, the conceptual tools that human beings use to understand the world develop further. 

Jean Piaget is the person most identified with this “cognitive constructivism” (also known as radical constructivism) in relation to child development.  Academic levels, like the Scottish Credit Qualifications Framework (SCQF), imply these processes continue into adulthood.  Indeed, in life, do they ever end? 

Another branch of constructivism is known as social constructivism.  This places construction of meaning in a social setting.  A person, perhaps a child, learns a socially acceptable form of knowledge by interaction, before internalising the knowledge; it becomes the person’s own knowledge, and its origins in interaction are lost.  For example, Lave & Wenger (1991) maintain that learning is integrated with practice, and through engagement in a community of practitioners students become increasingly competent in their identity as practitioners.  Meaning-making might be regarded as a form of negotiation, especially for adults.

As nursing practice is learned in a social and cultural background it is relevant to consider if there is a relationship between cognitive and social constructivism.  Do cognitive and social constructivist theories interact?  Human beings are equipped with the ability to learn in many ways, determined by an interaction between genetics and experience.  How this happens, and the balance between the two, is extremely controversial territory, but it is clear that some forms of learning go with, and some against, the grain.  A wise teacher will be aware of this and the research that investigates approaches to learning. 

The concept of surface and deep learning, cited earlier, is one example of a concept generated by research that has practical applications for teaching and learning.  On the other hand, people may construct meaning, but they are not free to construct any meaning they like in a community where understanding is both shared and disputed. 

Learning theories, such as experiential learning, social learning and situated learning theory, build on constructivist theory, and suggest a level of negotiation of understanding.  It could be argued that reflection is the main conceptual tool for both constructing meaning and challenging that meaning.  (For a fuller discussion of constructivism see Young and Paterson 2007: 8-19). 

Experiential learning is identified with Kolb (Turnock and Mulholland 2007: 13-14).  Kolb’s four stage model describes an active learning cycle built on experience.  It is often shown in the modified version produced by Lewin (cited in Turnock and Mulholland 2007: 13):

Kolb's four-stage model

This is very similar to the reflective cycle.  Brown (cited in Roberts 2000) takes things a stage further in the Action Learning Cycle (note the change from active):

Action learning is cyclic. It is about:

1.  taking action in the real world

2.  reflecting on the results of the action

3.  drawing conclusions from reflection

4.  planning how to do it better next time

5.  then repeating the cycle

Brown suggests forming learning sets – small groups that meets regularly to discuss common problems and look for solutions.

Bandura (cited in Turnock and Mullholland 2007: 15-16) in his Social Learning Theory highlights how most human behaviour is acquired through modelling; through the observations of others.  Mediation via language, images and other devices assists the process.  Motivation to model behaviour is enhanced by association with status and/or perceived functional value.

Social learning theory explains human behaviour in terms of continuous reciprocal interactions between cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences. The component processes underlying observational learning are: Attention, Retention, Motor Reproduction and Motivation (Turnock and Mulholland 2007: 16).

Other theorists have developed Experiential Learning and Social Learning Theory into situated learning theory and cognitive apprenticeship.  Oliver (1999) develops the continuum from Virginia Tech (2006) cited above a little further to explain how situated learning fits in:

Oliver's Continuum

(Adapted from Oliver, 1999)

This is highly significant for what kind of teacher one is trying to be and the teaching methods employed, which will be discussed in later sections of these notes.

 “Situated learning theory and the cognitive apprenticeship model based on it suggest skills be acquired through authentic contexts and by communicating with peers and experts about those contexts” (Oliver 1999).  The focus is on understanding knowledge and learning in the context in which it will be applied.  Situated learning concerns the transfer of knowledge and skills to their practical performance.  A key concept is that of cognitive apprenticeship, which is highly relevant to role modelling, and so it will be considered in the section on role modelling.

  • Look at each of the theories above, in turn.  Make a note how each of then might influence your approach to a learner, to learning and to teaching.