Reflecting on Adult Learning Styles


Adult learning theory surfaced on a couple of occasions this past week as I attended a surgical education meeting. One presentation focused on how resident learning styles could help predict success in surgical residency. Looking at surgical trainees over a period of 14 years, the study by Quillin, Pritts, Hanseman, Edwards & Davis (2013) administered the Kolb Learning Style Inventory to their sample and concluded that most successful surgical trainees are action-based learners, preferring the accommodating or converging styles. The authors basically focused on two measurements of success – operative volume and whether or not the trainees completed their surgical training.

As did a number in the audience, I had questions regarding the authors’ conclusions. Specifically, how learning styles might inform teaching and instruction of all surgical trainees, not just those who approached their learning from the accommodating or converging styles. Further, the diagnosis and treatment of surgical patients requires more than the performance of an invasive procedure. It requires communication skills in soliciting a patient’s history, in building rapport, as well as sufficient medical knowledge and sound clinical judgment which will lead to safe and effective patient care. Should a resident approach learning from either a diverging or assimilating style, how might faculty instructors equally accommodate their learning preferences and facilitate their successful navigation through residency training?

Though I could appreciate the relevance of such a study, I simply thought that the authors could have explored other conclusions and applications for their study. As a possible future study, it might be helpful to look at learning styles of medical students in their 3rd Year Surgical Clerkship which would likely include all four of Kolb’s learning styles and how an understanding of the various approaches to learning might facilitate a more successful experience for all. Regardless of what applications one may consider, one thing seems clear – opportunities for applying adult learning theory to surgical training abound!

Quillin, R.C., Pritts, T.A., Hanseman, D. J., Edwards, M. J., & Davis, B. R. (2013, April). How residents learn predicts success in surgical residency. APDS Paper Session I. Association of Program Directors in Surgery Meeting, Orlando, FL.

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4 Responses to Reflecting on Adult Learning Styles

  1. lsniestrath says:

    Isn’t it nice when something that we learned in class evidences itself in the real world? You’ve asked poignant questions about ideas that need to be addressed. Sounds like a potential project…

  2. Wally Wallace says:

    Hey there, Laurie! Good to hear you. What are you up to these days? Thanks for reading the blog!

  3. Interesting measure of success! as you point out. Studying how adults learn can only improve the process of educating our physicians. Glad you’re engaged in the study!

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