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Theoretical perspectives on workplace-based learning

Traditional models of education have 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’.

While such models have relevance in the classroom, they have significant limitations if transferred to the workplace, with all its dynamic complexity. No doubt every clinician has suffered the frustrations of late-running clinics or theatre lists because they have attempted to ‘teach and treat’ at the same time. And equally, every student or trainee has probably had the experience of sitting passively in the corner of a room, observing their supervisor get on with the work.

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 students/trainees learn without you having to formally ‘teach’ them?


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 of ‘concrete experience’, ‘reflective observation’, ‘abstract conceptualisation’ and ‘active experimentation’. This move prompted clinical teachers to consider how students and trainees might learn through taking part in workplace-based activity.

Kolb's learning cycle

Kolb 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. This model underplays the complexity of learning in and through experience, 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 students and trainees?
  • 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/attitudes in readiness for the next learning experience offered? 





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