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Using the Science of Learning to Develop Clinical Judgment: Adult Learning Theory

By June 3, 2021June 6th, 2023No Comments

We need to continually look to the science of learning to improve our teaching as nurse educators. 

The theory of Situated Cognition tells us that context is critical for learning to take place. Concepts need to be embedded in the bigger picture of thinking like a nurse to be understood and retrieved. In other words, giving students 100 slides worth of lecture per chapter of content is a disservice to learning.

Likewise, Cognitive Load Theory posits that humans can only retain a limited amount of information in our working memory at one time. Therefore, it’s important to present information at a pace and level of complexity that students can fully comprehend.

Adult Learning Theory

Just as we need to be aware of how our students process information, we need to know that adult learners process information differently than young learners. By understanding adult learning theory, nurse educators can be better equipped to use teaching strategies that take into account how adults learn best.

For example, adults are self-motivated and prefer self-directed learning. When preparing your content, remember to:

  1. Offer choices to determine how they would like to learn. Online learning may work well for adults that are more motivated.
  2. Share your life experiences. Adult learners have higher engagement in learning when content is relevant and applicable to the subject. Your real-world experience as a nurse matters!
  3. Don’t emphasize memorization or excessive information. Use problem solving to develop clinical reasoning and practice based strategies. Use unfolding case studies as part of your toolkit!
  4. Show how learning can be immediately applied and how it will be used in practice. Why is the concept you are teaching relevant to nursing practice? Failure to rescue in practice is a failure to recognize relevant clinical data.

Closing Thoughts

  • Never forget the importance of contextualizing your content.
  • Emphasize problem solving and relevant content and your students will develop clinical judgment.

To learn more, watch this video which includes a discussion on the science of learning:

Keith Rischer – Ph.D., RN, CCRN, CEN

As a nurse with over 35 years of experience who remained in practice as an educator, I’ve witnessed the gap between how nursing is taught and how it is practiced, and I decided to do something about it! Read more…

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