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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: January 2018

1 - How do students learn?



One definition of teaching is that it is the facilitation of learning. Regardless of whether you teach in a ward, a clinical skills centre, an out-patient clinic or a lecture theatre, it is helpful for you as a teacher to understand how people learn in order to enable you to facilitate their learning.

We shall describe the domains of learning: cognitive (knowledge); psychomotor (skills); and affective (attitudes). For many of you, your teaching will be in all three domains. There are different levels of learning for each domain; for instance, Bloom's taxonomy of learning in the cognitive domain describes six levels of learning (Bloom, 1956). Bloom's taxonomy is not new, but it provides a particularly useful tool to help you to identify whether you are teaching or assessing facts that need to be memorised or the application of facts, or judgement, which require higher-order thinking.

Medical students tackle their learning in different ways and these will be outlined. Many medical students have been called strategic learners (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1982) as there is evidence that they approach their learning in a way that will give them the best chance of passing their examinations. You can help your students learn more effectively by the way that you teach. We shall describe a number of theories about how people learn and present some principles of learning drawn from these theories that you can use in your everyday teaching to facilitate your students’ learning. These are called the FAIR principles of effective learning (Hesketh & Laidlaw, 2002b).

A good facilitator of learning has certain knowledge, skills, attitudes and personal attributes that we shall identify here to improve your abilities as a facilitator of learning.

Domains of learning

Student learning takes place in three domains: cognitive; psychomotor; and affective (Bloom, 1956). The cognitive domain includes intellectual abilities and the learning of content knowledge. You, as a teacher, facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and assess students’ ability to memorise facts, apply their learning to clinical situations and make judgements. The psychomotor domain encompasses the learning of motor skills such as physical movement and coordination (Gronlund, 1976). Development of these skills requires demonstration by teachers and time and opportunities for students to practise.