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Theoretical Perspectives on Workplace Learning

Traditional models of education tended to focus on formal teaching, with the focus being on the ‘transmission’ of knowledge from teacher to learner.

Transmission models are characterised by:

  • their emphasis on ‘teaching’ (not learning)
  • their focus on the individual teacher–learner relationship
  • an emphasis on ‘knowing’ rather than  ‘doing’ or ‘behaving’.


Thinking points
  • What other examples can you come up with that illustrate how difficult it is to ‘teach’ in the workplace?
  • Can you identify ways in which your learners learn without you having to formally ‘teach’ them?


While such models have some relevance in the classroom, they have significant limitations if transferred to the workplace, with all its dynamic complexity. No doubt every clinical teacher has suffered the frustrations of late-running clinics, ward rounds or theatre lists because they have attempted to teach as well as provide patient care. And equally, every learner has probably had the experience of sitting passively in the corner of a room, observing the clinical teacher they are attached to get on with their work.


In the 1990s there was a noticeable shift in learning theory, with conceptions of  experiential learning becoming increasingly popular, based on Kolb’s now familiar ‘learning cycle’ (see below). This move prompted clinical teachers to consider how learners might learn through taking part in workplace activity.

Kolb's learning cycle

Kolb's Learning Cycle

Kolb’s cycle provides a framework to consider what needs to happen beyond the actual ‘doing something’ for learning to take place. While there is much to commend this model, the greatest danger is that it implies that somehow the provision of appropriate ‘experience’ is sufficient to ensure learning takes place. It is not enough for a nurse in training to simply work on the ward alongside other members of the team without any structure or signposting to what learning is actually (or could be) occurring. Kolb’s model underplays the complexity of learning in and through experience, the varying experiences and needs different learners will have and the role played by the clinical teaching in supporting this type of learning.


Thinking points
  • What types of learning experience do you offer to learners?
  • What opportunities do you provide for them to think and talk about the experiences they have had?
  • How do you help them develop their knowledge/skills/behaviours in readiness for the next learning experience offered?


Billett and others note that, far from being weak, ad hoc and informal, the workplace comprises highly structured learning experiences, with workplace norms, values and practices providing clear indications of ‘what constitutes performance in workplaces and bases for judgements about performance’ (Billett, 2001).

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