10 Strategies to Improve Nursing Students' Learning -The Psychology of Education


Published: 03 December 2017

Understanding the Psychology of Nursing Education

Educational psychology is focused on understanding the way in which people learn and maintain that information.

Learning is unique to the individual’s needs and is therefore not ‘one size fits all’ (American Psychological Association 2017). Education psychology incorporates an understanding of human development and that learning occurs over lifetimes in all different settings such as work, school, doing housework, and in social situations (APA 2017). Education psychology reveals that learning is affected by social, emotional and cognitive domains (APA 2017).

One such cognitive domain is explored in the Ausmed article, Socratic Questioning in Healthcare (Gilkes 2017) which explains critical thinking as an important skill for nurse educators.

Critical thinking can result from Socratic questioning, reflection, concept-mapping and questioning. As we explore the research, it becomes apparent that nursing curriculums should incorporate these skills for optimising student nurses’ learning. Moreover, it is apparent that nurse educators especially need to be competent with these skills (see The Relationship Between Learning and Teaching). Critical thinking with Socratic questioning promotes psychological safety and positive psychology. Rather than demean or ‘pimp’ (embarrass or humiliate a learner), Socratic questioning aims to offer learners a different viewpoint and thereby expand their understanding/knowledge.

Students Practising on a Dummy - 10 Strategies to Improve Nursing Students’ Learning -The Psychology of Education

More Than One Way to Learn

Aliakbari et al. (2015) identify different educational psychology theories or perspectives. For example, Behaviourists consider learning as changed behaviour involving a stimulus and observable response. The result of a stimulus on response in Behaviourist theory can include the emotional reactions of learners.

Dissimilar to Behaviourists, Cognitive psychologists consider learning as an internal process that involves thinking, understanding, consciousness, and organising information.

A different learning theory is that of Fundamentalists, who believe learning requires developing inquiry skills and problem solving skills to facilitate information discovery and processing.

Finally, Humanists focus more on learning in relation to the learners’ minds, feelings and experiences; for example, ‘experiential learning is located with the meaning and meaningful’ (2015).

Kalb et al. (2015) state that ‘EBTP (evidence-based teaching practice) in nursing education requires sustained institutional, administrative, and collegial support to promote faculty effectiveness and student learning.’

Related reading: The Art of Teaching Others – What Motivates Us to Learn?

10 Strategies to Improve Nursing Students’ Learning

Xu (2016) suggests ten strategies to improve nursing students’ learning:


Despite being sometimes considered passive or boring, lecturing is believed to be a time-efficient, cost-efficient, effective way to present large amounts of new information to groups of students. The ability to utilise presentation techniques such as videos, can mean that students may find this approach to learning fun.

High-Fidelity Simulation

Very realistic clinical scenarios help student nurses to develop competence, teamwork, confidence and critical thinking with minimal risk of harm to clients.


This learning strategy helps student nurses to note the ways that different ideas interlink. Concept maps can help students acknowledge their current understandings and form new ideas. Concept maps help learners to organise or process their knowledge logically. It is suggested that this visual learning technique promotes critical thinking, analysis and evaluation. Learners also develop an understanding of their knowledge gaps and future learning needs.

Online Courses

Online learning helps student nurses due to its flexibility, accessibility and cost-effectiveness. Student nurses that are on placement or working may find online study preferable to on-campus delivery modes.

Students Practicing on Dummies 10 Strategies to Improve Nursing Students’ Learning -The Psychology of Education


Games in nursing education promote a positive, fun, engaging environment that increases the motivation and interest of learners. Games can foster critical thinking skills and can be combined with other learning techniques such as lectures. Games can be played using various formats, even mobile apps.


Role-plays are not the same as simulations because they are not scripted and involve improvising. Role-plays are important in nursing education as they facilitate the practice of communication and conflict management. It is important to debrief following role-playing to offer support and reflection, as well as further learning.

Jigsaw Classroom

This technique involves making ‘home groups’ to complete tasks. A member is chosen to gather data and return the information to the homegroup. This strategy helps nursing students to increase listening skills, engagement, and empathy. Again, it is imperative that there is an opportunity for thorough debriefing following the activity to ensure that support, reflection and increased learning can ensue.

Case Study

Case studies are stories that are realistic and complex, that usually involve a conflict or issue that needs to be resolved by the learner. The aim is to close the gap between theory and practice, and improve action-planning and critical thinking. The educator needs to inform the learners of summarised suggestions to resolve the case study after the learners have had an opportunity to work on the case themselves.


This approach facilitates critical thinking, alternative perspectives, and an opportunity to practice verbal communication and higher order learning. This approach can help the learners to develop research skills, and clear presentation of their ideas or arguments. Debriefing or discussion following the debate can help to provide learners with support, feedback, collaboration and critical thinking/evaluation.

Problem-Based Learning

This approach involves giving learners a problem that needs to be solved (e.g. heart failure). Offering a scenario to students gives an opportunity for learning through self-directed study, as well as teamwork. The educator may ask questions about a scenario and provide learners with feedback.



Portrait of Madeline Gilkes
Madeline Gilkes

Madeline Gilkes, CNS, RN, is a Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. She focused her master of healthcare leadership research project on health coaching for long-term weight loss in obese adults. In recent years, Madeline has found a passion for preventative nursing, transitioning from leadership roles (CNS Gerontology & Education, Clinical Facilitator) in hospital settings to primary healthcare nursing. Madeline’s vision is to implement lifestyle medicine to prevent and treat chronic conditions. Her brief research proposal for her PhD application involves Lifestyle Medicine for Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Madeline is working towards Credentialled Diabetes Educator (CDE) status and primarily works in the role of Head of Nursing. Madeline’s philosophy focuses on using humanistic management, adult learning theories/evidence and self-efficacy theories and interventions to promote positive learning environments. In addition to her Master of Healthcare Leadership, Madeline has a Graduate Certificate in Diabetes Education & Management, Graduate Certificate in Adult & Vocational Education, Graduate Certificate of Aged Care Nursing, and a Bachelor of Nursing. See Educator Profile

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