A learning theory is described as a framework of unified principles and constructs, which detail and predict the way in which individuals learn. Snowman and Biehler (2000) explain how there are numerous theories and perspectives on how individuals learn and their motivation to learn. This paper will detail one learning theory that could be incorporated into the nursing education curriculum.

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The Role of Cognition
Thorndike carried out systematic animal skill learning research and discovered that habit-forming learning could be used as a scientific learning theory (Keating, 2011). Thorndike suggested that learning was an automatic response, with non-cognitive development being controlled by the laws of use and effect (Mitchell, Jonas-Simpson, & Cross, 2012). Thorndike’s proposed laws implied a connection between stimuli and response that could be affected through positive or negative reinforcement (Mitchell, Jonas-Simpson, & Cross, 2012). As such, Thorndike proposed that an increase in practice, coupled with effective external feedback, would lead to an increase in the strength of the connection, thereby resulting in habit formation (Keating, 2011).

Therefore, it is possible to use this theory for nurse student training with repetition in key skill practice, coupled with appropriate external feedback, leading to the development of a skilled habit. An example of this would be observed procedure practice using mannequins, where the students would learn the key skills in a harmless trial and error scenario, whereby all aspects of ethical concerns would be eradicated (McCallum, 2007). Positive feedback, which could include tutor feedback or peer support, would strengthen the habit whereas negative feedback, resulting from poor results, comments or procedure failure would encourage students to search for alternative solutions to the problem, thereby eventually leading them to the correct skill and perfection of the habit without the need for practice on human subjects (Keating, 2011).

The Thorndike theory of learning enables students to practice skills in an ethical manner, through harmless trial and error. Learning in this manner results in the formation of positive habits that can be reinforced through appropriate feedback.


  • Keating, S. (2011). Curriculum development and evaluation in nursing. New York: Springer Pub. Co.
  • McCallum, J. (2007). The debate in favour of using simulation education in pre-registration adult nursing.Nurse Education Today, 27(8), 825-831. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2006.10.014
  • Mitchell, G., Jonas-Simpson, C., & Cross, N. (2012). Innovating nursing education: interrelating narrative, conceptual learning, reflection, and complexity science. JNEP, 3(4). http://dx.doi.org/10.5430/jnep.v3n4p30
  • Snowman, J. & Biehler, R. (2000). Psychology applied to teaching (9th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.