A Medical Science Educator Article Review From Dr. Steven Crooks

This review was written by Steven Crooks, PhD, MHA, a member of the IAMSE Publications Committee, and was published in March 2021 in Medical Science Educator. The article is titled “Some Learning Theories for Medical Educators” and was written by Hongmei Dong, Jonathan Lio, Renslow Sherer & Ivy Jiang

If you are confused about the connection between learning theory and medical educational practice, I recommend an article recently published in Medical Science Educator titled “Learning Theories for Medical Educators.” To be sure, there is no shortage of articles in the medical education literature on the praxis of learning theory, but this article is different from others in some important ways—ways that helped me to see more clearly the utility of learning theory in my own teaching.

First, the authors discuss several contemporary learning theories with an emphasis on the interrelationships (e.g., similarities, differences) among the theories rather than discussing each theory in isolation. This helped me to see the entire theoretical landscape as a coherent whole rather than as a mass of disparate theories. With this broader perspective, theories I once viewed as conflicting became complementary—useful tools for thinking about specific learning situations from different angles. 

To concretize the idea of multiple theories working together, the authors proffered PBL as an example of an instructional method incorporating multiple theoretical perspectives. They explained that the steps in the PBL method illustrate several learning theories including cognitivism, social and cognitive constructivism, self-directed learning, adult learning, experiential learning, and communities of practice. More importantly, they show how each of these theories function as useful tools for thinking about and understanding the rationale behind the various components of PBL. This helped me to appreciate the complexity of PBL and to understand why PBL research has yielded such conflicting results. Clearly, future PBL research should employ more nuanced designs to isolate specific methods along with their theoretical underpinnings.  

The authors also addressed a more fundamental question that often mystifies practicing educators: “Why do we [need] so many learning theories?” Their answers reinforced in my mind the utility of having multiple theories. I could especially relate to the apt analogy comparing the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant to our penchant for locking in on a single perspective to explain the entirety of the learning experience.  The author’s helped me to better appreciate the fact that “theories are connected, [and] describe inter-related parts of the complex learning process.” 

Another notable contribution of this article is how the authors referenced descriptions in published articles when illustrating specific applications of a theory to medical education practice. As I read their explanations of theory in actual medical education practice, I was reminded of a statement I read some time ago that “there’s nothing so theoretically interesting as good practice.” I’ve read several articles providing guidance on applying theory to practice, but too often the guidance itself was theoretical, conjectural, and/or vague (e.g., social constructivism suggests that students learn better in groups). In their article, the authors took pains to document published examples of specific instances of applying theory to practice in medical education. This helped me to more clearly invasion how I can transform theory to practice in my own teaching.

Finally, I was impressed by the sheer number of theories addressed in the article. And the authors were careful to avoid outdated theories (e.g., behaviorism) with minimal relevance to the practice of modern medical education. Once again, I highly recommend the article to those interested in some fresh insights into the relationship between theory and medical education practice.

Steven Crooks, PhD, MHA
Professor of Medical Education
Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine
Member, IAMSE Publications Committee