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How Theories of Learning Underpin Continuing Education Programs

Exciting advancements are being made in the continuing and professional education industries. This is especially true with the application of new technologies driving a veritable revolution in patient care. The injection of digestible performance metrics, personalization and AI into learning environments has the potential to improve learner engagement and performance.

These changes are leading to a sort of continuing medical educational (CME) revolution as these technological advances will lead to an educational environment that will look much different than it did in the past. But at least one thing will stay consistent: the importance of educational and learning theories that create a foundation for content design and the effective application of new technologies that take diverse learning styles into account.

The following learning theories that underpin the important developments in the CME industry reflect the need for a data-driven process for curriculum development and should appeal to learners that can benefit from multi-modal learning. Learning theories reflect a number of dimensions of human development. Human cognition, behavior, sociality and perception all play a role in how people acquire and apply knowledge and skills.


Behaviorism refers to the idea that animal (and human) behavior is learning acquired, mediated and expressed through overt behavior, rather than internal processes. Humans, therefore, learn by making measurable associations between events or stimuli in their environments.

The application of incentives and the use of fun or aesthetically appealing digital interfaces are examples of behaviorism in learning theories of education. Educational content designers are putting more emphasis on bright colors, sounds and encouraging prompts to reflect on an effort to make time in their online spaces more stimulating and interesting. This can also be useful for facilitating retention.

Cognitive Theory

Synonymous with information processing theory, cognitive theory is a learning perspective relating to how humans receive, process and act on information at both the neurological and abstract levels. Cognitive theory attempts to build working concepts for how the brain uses information passively to generate a response to stimuli and environmental conditions. Memory encoding and decoding, processing speed and perception are all ideas born from cognitive theory and are abstract scientific constructs that explain the intangible aspects of brain functioning.

Cognitive theory is at the heart of educational design. The way information is structured, emphasized and presented to the learner attempts to reflect how learners learn best. How much information, at what speed it’s delivered and in what order are basic applications of cognitive theory in educational design and continuing education curriculum.


Constructivism advances on cognitive theory by putting active, rather than passive information processing at the center of human learning. This theory also includes constructs such as attention and memory with a key difference—the learner is actively reorganizing—or “constructing” information for storage, interpretation and later use.

In practice, the constructivist perspective sees a Learning Management System (LMS) or live seminar as a learning guide, not only helping the learner reach and remember the correct answer but helping them understand the why better. That way, they acquire the information in a similar manner to how they will use it.

Social Learning Theory

The central theme of social learning theory is that people learn by watching each other and doing things in groups. This theory also sees learning from a more systemic perspective and references behavioral, cognitive and neurological elements in its description of human learning. In social learning theory, humans are both active and passive learners that are helped by being exposed to concepts in action.

Live conferences and webinars benefit from incorporating social learning opportunities. Social learning is vital to those in the health field as many clinicians have to interact with patients physically during the normal course of a workday, like when performing CPR. A well-prepared clinician will have to see CPR performed and then practice it on others to get it right. As technology advances and makes way for more robust video and interactive content on learning platforms, the opportunities to extend social learning to wider, at-home audiences will improve.