Determinants of Learning

Determinants of Learning

Sharon Kitchie

In a variety of settings, nurses are responsible for the education of patients, families, staff, and students. Numerous factors make the nurse educator’s role particularly challenging in meeting the information needs of these various groups of learners. For example, short lengths of stay have compressed patient and family contact with the nurse, making it difficult to capitalize on teachable moments. In the case of staff, educational and experiential levels differ widely and time constraints are ever present in the practice arena. Staffing patterns such as 10- or 12-hour days, parttime employment, and various job functions can put the educator’s ability to complete an accurate education assessment of staff to the test. Also, the ethnic and racial composition of nursing students has been changing in recent years (Heller, Oros, & Durney-Crowley, 2000). Notably, the percentage of baccalaureate nursing students from minority backgrounds rose from 16.2% in 2002 to 28% in 2011 (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2011). In addition, students are entering schools of nursing at an older age, bringing with them diverse life experiences and the demands of working and raising families while furthering their education. These and other changing healthcare trends and population demographics mean that nurse educators must constantly assess the determinants of learning for the varied audiences of learners they teach.

To meet these challenges, the nurse educator must be aware of the various factors that influence how well an individual learns. The three determinants of learning that require assessment are (1) the needs of the learner, (2) the state of readiness to learn, and (3) the preferred learning styles for processing information. This chapter addresses these three determinants of learning as they affect the effective and efficient delivery of patient, student, and staff education.


The role of educating others is one of the most essential interventions that a nurse performs. To do it well, the nurse must both identify the information learners need and consider their readiness to learn and their styles of learning. The learner—not the teacher—is the single most important person in the education process. Educators can greatly
enhance learning when they serve as facilitators helping the learner become aware of what needs to be known, why knowing is valuable, and how to be actively involved in acquiring information (Musinski, 1999). Just providing information to the learner, however, does not ensure that learning will occur. There is no guarantee that the learner will learn the information given, although there is more of an opportunity to learn if the educator assesses the determinants of learning.

Assessment permits the nurse educator to facilitate the process of learning by arranging experiences within the environment that assist the learner to find the purpose, the will, and the most suitable approaches for learning. An assessment of the three determinants of learning enables the educator to identify information and present it in a variety of ways, which a learner cannot do alone. Manipulating the environment allows learners to experience meaningful parts and wholes to reach their individual potentials.

The educator plays a crucial role in the learning process by doing the following:

  • Assessing problems or deficits

  • Providing important information and presenting it in unique and appropriate ways

  • Identifying progress being made

  • Giving feedback and follow-up

  • Reinforcing learning in the acquisition of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes

  • Evaluating learners’ abilities

The educator is vital in giving support, encouragement, and direction during the process of learning. Learners may make choices on their own without the assistance of an educator, but these choices may be limited or inappropriate. For example, the nurse facilitates necessary changes in the home environment, such as minimizing distractions by having family members turn off the television to provide a quiet environment conducive for concentrating on a learning activity. The educator assists in identifying optimal learning approaches and activities that can both support and challenge the learner based on his or her individual learning needs, readiness to learn, and learning style.


Assessment of learners’ needs, readiness, and styles of learning is the first and most important step in instructional design—but it is also the step most likely to be neglected. The importance of assessment of the learner may seem self-evident, yet often only lip service is given to this initial phase of the educational process. Frequently, the nurse dives into teaching before addressing all of the determinants of learning. It is not unusual for patients with the same condition to be taught with the same materials in the same way (Haggard, 1989). The result is that information given to the patient is neither individualized nor based on an adequate educational assessment. Evidence suggests, however, that individualizing teaching based on prior assessment improves patient outcomes (Corbett, 2003; Frank-Bader, Beltran, & Dojlidko, 2011; Kim et al., 2004; Miaskowski et al., 2004) and satisfaction (Bakas et al., 2009; Wagner, Bear, & Davidson, 2011). For example, Corbett’s (2003) research demonstrates that providing individualized education to home care patients with diabetes significantly improves their foot care practices.

Nurses are taught that any nursing intervention should be preceded by an assessment. Few would deny that this is the correct approach, no matter whether planning for giving direct physical care, meeting the psychosocial needs of a patient, or teaching someone to be independent in selfcare or in the delivery of care. The effectiveness of nursing care clearly depends on the scope, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of assessment prior to interventions.

What makes assessment so significant and fundamental to the educational process? This initial step in the process validates the need for learning and the approaches to be used in designing learning experiences. Patients who desire or require information to maintain optimal health as well as nursing colleagues who must have a greater scope or depth of knowledge to deliver quality care to patients deserve to have an assessment done by the educator so that their needs as learners are appropriately addressed.

Assessments do more than simply identify and prioritize information for the purposes of setting behavioral goals and objectives, planning instructional interventions, and being able to evaluate in the long run whether the learner has achieved the desired goals and objectives. Good assessments ensure that optimal learning can occur with the least amount of stress and anxiety for the learner. Assessment prevents needless repetition of known material, saves time and energy on the part of both the learner and the educator, and helps to establish rapport between the two parties (Haggard, 1989). Furthermore, it increases the motivation to learn by focusing on what the patient or staff member feels is most important to know or to be able to do.

Why, then, is this first step in the education process so often overlooked or only partially carried out? Lack of time is the number one reason that nurse educators shortchange the assessment phase. Such factors as shortened hospital stays and limited contact with patients and families in other settings, combined with the tighter schedules of nursing staff as a result of increased practice demands, have reduced the amount of time available for instruction. Because time constraints are a major concern when carrying out patient or staff education, nurses must become skilled in accurately conducting assessments of the three determinants of learning so as to have reserve time for actual teaching. In addition, many nurses, although expected and required by their nurse practice acts to instruct others, are unfamiliar with the principles of teaching and learning. The nurse in the role of educator must become more well acquainted and comfortable with all the elements of instructional design, but particularly with the assessment phase, because it serves as the foundation for the rest of the educational process.

Assessment of the learner includes attending to the three determinants of learning (Haggard, 1989):

1. Learning needs—what the learner needs and wants to learn

2. Readiness to learn—when the learner is receptive to learning

3. Learning style—how the learner best learns


Learning needs are defined as gaps in knowledge that exist between a desired level of performance and the actual level of performance (Healthcare Education Association, 1985). In other words, a learning need is the gap between what someone knows and what someone needs or wants to know. Such gaps may arise because of a lack of knowledge, attitude, or skill.

Of the three determinants of learning, nurse educators must identify learning needs first so that they can design an instructional plan to address any deficits in the cognitive, affective, or psychomotor domains. Once the educator discovers what needs to be taught, he can determine when and how learning can optimally occur.

Of course, not every individual perceives a need for education. Often, learners are not aware of what they do not know or want to know. Consequently, it is up to the educator to assist learners in identifying, clarifying, and prioritizing their needs and interests. Once these aspects of the learner are determined, the information gathered can, in turn, be used to set objectives
and plan appropriate and effective teaching and learning approaches for education to begin at a point suitable to the learner rather than stemming from an unknown or inappropriate place.

Differences often exist between the perception of needs identified by patients versus the needs identified by the health professionals caring for them. In one early study, the nurse-patient agreement score with respect to congruency on needs/problems identified was only 20% (Roberts, 1982). Mordiffi, Tan, and Wong (2003) cite more recent evidence from their research indicating that the preoperative information provided by nurses and doctors was considered insufficient by the majority (66.7%) of patients who rated knowledge about anesthesia before scheduled surgery as being very or extremely important to them. Findings from a comprehensive review of preference-match strategies in physician-patient communication by Kiesler and Auerbach (2006) indicate that a large number (median: 52%) of patients’ preferences for medical information were “mismatched” with the information that they actually received. In these situations, the patients were dissatisfied with the medical information they were given, felt they had not been given adequate information about their condition, and reported a desire for more information. An interesting finding by Sandberg, Sharma, Wiklund, and Sandberg (2008) is that the information given to patients by anesthesiologists and nurse practitioners during preoperative teaching vastly exceeded patients’ short-term memory capacity. Other authors have also substantiated comparative incongruence in the perception of learning needs by patients and providers (Burkhart, 2008; Carlson, Ivnik, Dierkhising, O’Byrne, & Vickers, 2006; Suhonen, Nenonen, Laukka, & Valimaki, 2005; Timmins, 2005; Yonaty & Kitchie, 2012).

According to cognitive experts in behavioral and social sciences (Bloom, 1968; Bruner, 1966; Carroll, 1963; Kessels, 2003; Ley, 1979; Skinner, 1954), most learners—90-95% of them—can master a subject with a high degree of success if given sufficient time and appropriate support. It is the educator’s task to facilitate the determination of what exactly needs to be learned and to identify approaches for presenting information in a way that the learner will best understand.

The following are important steps in the assessment of learning needs:

1. Identify the learner. Who is the audience? If the audience is one individual, is there a single need or do many needs have to be fulfilled? Is there more than one learner? If so, are their needs congruent or diverse? The development of formal and informal education programs for patients and their families, nursing staff, or students must be based on accurate identification of the learner. For example, an educator may believe that all parents of children with asthma need a formal class on potential hazards in the home. This perception may be based on the educator’s interaction with a few patients and may not be true of all families. Similarly, the manager of a healthcare agency might request an in-service workshop for all staff on documentation of infection control because of an isolated incident involving one staff member’s failure to appropriately follow established infection control procedures. This break in protocol may or may not indicate that everyone needs to have an update on policies and procedures.

2. Choose the right setting. Establishing a trusting environment helps learners feel a sense of security in confiding information, believe their concerns are taken seriously and are considered important, and feel respected. Ensuring privacy and confidentiality is recognized as essential to establishing a trusting relationship.

3. Collect data about the learner. Once the learner is identified, the educator can determine characteristic needs of the
population by exploring typical health problems or issues of interest to that population. Subsequently, a literature search can assist the educator in identifying the type and extent of content to be included in teaching sessions as well as the educational strategies for teaching a specific population based on the analysis of needs. For example, Bibb (2001) collected data about a targeted patient population at one military treatment facility and found that education programs did not provide adequate support for the growing number of participants who were older and more chronically ill. Rutten, Arora, Bakos, Aziz, and Rowland (2005) studied patients with cancer to determine the characteristic learning needs of that population.

4. Collect data from the learner. Learners are usually the most important source of needs assessment data about themselves. Allow patients and/or family members to identify what is important to them, what they perceive their needs to be, which types of social support systems are available, and which kind of assistance these supports can provide. If the audience for teaching consists of staff members or students, solicit information from them as to those areas of practice in which they feel they need new or additional information. Actively engaging learners in defining their own problems and needs motivates them to learn because they are invested in planning for a program specifically tailored to their unique circumstances. Also, the learner is important to include as a source of information because, as noted previously, the educator may not always perceive the same learning needs as the learner.

5. Involve members of the healthcare team. Other health professionals likely have insight into patient or family needs or the educational needs of the nursing staff or students as a result of their frequent contacts with both consumers and caregivers. Nurses are not the sole teachers of these individuals; thus they must remember to collaborate with other members of the healthcare team for a richer assessment of learning needs. This consideration is especially important because time for assessment is often limited. In addition to other health professionals, associations such as the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Cancer Society are excellent sources of health information.

6. Prioritize needs. A list of identified needs can become endless and seemingly impossible to accomplish. Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of human needs can help the educator prioritize so that the learner’s basic needs are attended to first and foremost before higher needs are addressed. For example, learning about a low-sodium diet cannot occur if a patient faces problems with basic physiological needs such as pain and discomfort; these latter needs must be addressed before any other higher-order learning can occur.

Setting priorities for learning is often difficult when the nurse educator is faced with many learning needs in several areas. Prioritizing the identified needs helps the patient or staff member to set realistic and achievable learning goals. Choosing which information to cover is imperative, and nurse educators must make choices deliberately. Educators should prioritize learning needs based on the criteria in Table 4-1 (Healthcare Education Association, 1985, p. 23) to foster maximum learning.

TABLE 4-1 Criteria for Prioritizing Learning Needs

  • Mandatory: Needs that must be learned for survival or situations in which the learner’s life or safety is threatened. Learning needs in this category must be met immediately. For example, a patient who has experienced a recent heart attack needs to know the signs and symptoms and when to get immediate help. The nurse who works in a hospital must learn how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation or be able to carry out correct isolation techniques for self-protection.

  • Desirable: Needs that are not life dependent but that are related to well-being or the overall ability to provide quality care in situations involving changes in institutional procedure. For example, it is important for patients who have cardiovascular disease to understand the effects of a high-fat diet on their condition. It is desirable for nurses to update their knowledge by attending an in-service program when hospital management decides to focus more attention on the appropriateness of patient education materials in relation to the patient populations being served.

  • Possible: Needs for information that is nice to know but not essential or required or situations in which the learning need is not directly related to daily activities. For example, the patient who is newly diagnosed as having diabetes mellitus most likely does not need to know about self-care issues that arise in relationship to traveling across time zones or staying in a foreign country because this information does not relate to the patient’s everyday activities.

Without good assessment, a common mistake is to provide more information than the patient wants or needs. To avoid this problem, the nurse must discriminate between information that patients need to know versus information that is nice for them to know. Often, highly technical information merely serves to confuse and distract patients from the essential information they need to carry out their regimen (Hansen & Fisher, 1998; Kessels, 2003).

Education in and of itself is not always the answer to a problem. Often, healthcare providers believe that more education is necessary when something goes wrong, when something is not being done, when a patient is not following a prescribed regimen, or when a staff member does not adhere to a protocol. In such instances, always look for other nonlearning needs. For example, the nurse may discover that the patient is not taking his medication and may begin a teaching plan without adequate assessment. The patient may already understand the importance of taking a prescribed medication, know how to administer it, and be willing to follow the regimen, but his financial resources may not be sufficient to purchase the medication. In this case, the patient does not have a learning need but rather requires social or financial support to obtain the medication.

7. Determine availability of educational resources. The educator may identify a need, but it may be useless to proceed with interventions if the proper educational resources are not available, are unrealistic to obtain, or do not match the learner’s needs. In this case, it may be better to focus on other identified needs. For example, a patient who has asthma needs to learn how to use an inhaler and peak-flow meter. The nurse educator may determine that this patient learns best if the nurse
first gives a demonstration of the use of the inhaler and peak-flow meter and then allows the patient the opportunity to perform a return demonstration. If the proper equipment is not available for demonstration/return demonstration at that moment, it might be better for the nurse educator to concentrate on teaching the signs and symptoms the patient might experience when having poor air exchange than it is to cancel the encounter altogether. Thereafter, the educator would work immediately on obtaining the necessary equipment for future encounters.

8. Assess the demands of the organization. This assessment yields information that reflects the climate of the organization. What are the organization’s philosophy, mission, strategic plan, and goals? The educator should be familiar with standards of performance required in various employee categories, along with job descriptions and hospital, professional, and agency regulations. If, for example, the organization is focused on health promotion versus trauma care, then there likely will be a different educational focus or emphasis that dictates learning needs of both consumers and employees.

9. Take time-management issues into account. Because time constraints are a major impediment to the assessment process, Rankin and Stallings (2005) suggest the educator should emphasize the following important points with respect to timemanagement issues:

  • Although close observation and active listening take time, it is much more efficient and effective to take the time to do a good initial assessment upfront than to waste time by having to go back and uncover information that should have been obtained before beginning instruction.

  • Learners must be given time to offer their own perceptions of their learning needs if the educator expects them to take charge and become actively involved in the learning process. Learners should be asked what they want to learn first, because this step allays their fears and makes it easier for them to move on to other necessary content (McNeill, 2012). This approach also shows that the nurse cares about what the learner believes is important.

  • Assessment can be conducted anytime and anywhere the educator has formal or informal contact with learners. Data collection does not have to be restricted to a specific, predetermined schedule. With patients, many potential opportunities for assessment arise, such as when giving a bath, serving a meal, making rounds, and distributing medications. For staff, assessments can be made when stopping to talk in the hallway or while enjoying lunch or break time together.

  • Informing a patient ahead of time that the educator wishes to spend time discussing problems or needs gives the person advance notice to sort out his or her thoughts and feelings. In one large metropolitan teaching hospital, this strategy proved effective in increasing patient understanding and satisfaction with transplant discharge information (Frank-Bader et al., 2011). Patients and their families were informed that a specific topic would be discussed on a specific day. Knowing what to expect each day allowed them to review the appropriate handouts ahead of time and prepare questions. It gave patients and family members the time they needed to identify areas of confusion or concern.

  • Minimizing interruptions and distractions during planned assessment interviews maximizes productivity. In turn, the educator might accomplish in 15 minutes what otherwise might have taken an hour in less directed, more frequently interrupted circumstances.


The nurse in the role of educator must obtain objective data about the learner as well as subjective data from the learner. This section describes various methods that educators can use to assess learner needs and that should be used in combination to yield the most reliable information (Haggard, 1989).

Informal Conversations

Often learning needs are discovered during impromptu conversations that take place with other healthcare team members involved in the care of the client and between the nurse and the patient or his or her family. The nurse educator must rely on active listening to pick up cues and information regarding learning needs. Staff can provide valuable input about their learning needs by responding to open-ended questions.

Structured Interviews

The structured interview is perhaps the form of needs assessment most commonly used to solicit the learner’s point of view. The nurse educator asks the learner direct and often predetermined questions to gather information about learning needs. As with the gathering of any information from a learner in the assessment phase, the nurse should strive to establish a trusting environment, use open-ended questions, choose a setting that is free of distractions, and allow the learner to state what are believed to be the learning needs.

It is important to remain nonjudgmental when collecting information about the learner’s strengths, beliefs, and motivations. Nurses should take notes with the learner’s permission so that important information is not lost. The telephone is a good tool to use for an interview if it is impossible to ask questions in person. The major drawback of a telephone interview is the inability on the part of the nurse educator to perceive nonverbal cues from the learner.

Interviews yield answers that may reveal uncertainties, confiicts, inconsistencies, unexpected problems, anxieties, fears, and present knowledge base. Examples of questions that nurse educators can ask patients as learners are as follows:

  • What do you think caused your problem?

  • How severe is your illness?

  • What does your illness/health mean to you?

  • What do you do to stay healthy?

  • Which results do you hope to obtain from treatments?

  • What are your strengths and limitations as a learner?

  • How do you learn best?

If the learner is a staff member or student, the following questions could be asked:

  • What do you think are your biggest challenges to learning?

  • Which skill(s) do you need help in performing?

  • Which obstacles have you encountered in the past when you were learning new information?

  • What do you see as your strengths and limitations as a learner?

  • How do you learn best?

These types of questions help to determine the needs of the learner and serve as a foundation for beginning to plan an educational intervention.

Focus Groups

Focus groups involve getting together a small number (4 to 12) of potential learners (Breitrose, 1988) to determine areas of educational need by using group discussion to identify points of view or knowledge about a certain topic. With this approach, a facilitator leads the discussion by asking open-ended questions intended to encourage detailed discussion. It is important for facilitators to create a safe environment so that participants feel free to share sensitive information in the group setting (Shaha, Wenzel, & Hill, 2011). In research focus groups, having a facilitator who is not known to members of the group can help to prevent feelings of coercion or conflict of interest. This also should be the case for focus groups assessing learning needs, because participants may fear that sharing information about their areas of weakness may be held against them in the future. The groups of potential learners in most cases should be homogeneous, with similar characteristics such as age, gender, and past experience with the topic under discussion. However, if the purpose of the focus group is to solicit attitudes about a particular subject or to discuss ethical issues, for example, it may not be necessary or recommended to have a homogeneous group. Focus groups are ideal during the initial stage of information gathering to provide qualitative data for a complete assessment of learning needs and can be a rich source of information when exploring sensitive nursing issues (Papastavrou & Andreou, 2012).

Self-Administered Questionnaires

Nurse educators can obtain learners’ written responses to questions about learning needs by using survey instruments. Checklists are one of the most common forms of questionnaires. They are easy to administer, provide more privacy compared to interviews, and yield easy-to-tabulate data. Learners seldom object to this method of obtaining information about their learning needs. Sometimes learners may have difficulty rating themselves and may need the educator to clarify terms or provide additional information to help them understand what is being assessed. The educator’s role is to encourage learners to make as honest a self-assessment as possible. Because checklists usually reflect what the nurse educator perceives as needs, a space should be provided for the learner to add any other items of interest or concern.

One example of a highly reliable and valid self-assessment tool is the Patient Learning Needs Scale (Redman, 2003). This instrument is designed to measure patients’ perceptions of learning needs to manage their health care at home following a medical or surgical illness (Bubela et al., 2000).


Giving written pretests before teaching is planned can help identify the knowledge levels of potential learners regarding a particular subject and assist in identifying their specific learning needs. In addition, this approach prevents the educator from repeating already known material in the teaching plan. Furthermore, pretest results are useful to the educator after the completion of teaching when pretest scores are compared with posttest scores to determine whether learning has taken place.

The Diabetes Knowledge Test is an example of a tool used to assess learning needs for self-management of diabetes (Panja, Starr, & Colleran, 2005). When investigating this tool, researchers compared patients’ diabetes knowledge with their glycemic control. Their findings demonstrated that an inverse linear relationship exists between performance on this diabetes test and HbA1c values. This test is available from the Michigan Diabetes Research and Training Center ( Redman (2003) describes this and many other measurement instruments for patient education that measure knowledge and learning assessment.

The educator must always consider the reported characteristics of the self-administered questionnaire or test before using it. Specific criteria to consider include what the purpose of the tool is (i.e., if it is relevant to what the nurse educator plans to assess), whether the results will be meaningful, whether each of the measured constructs is well defined, whether adequate testing of the instrument has been conducted, whether the instrument has been used in a similar setting, and whether the instrument has been used with a population similar to the educator’s. The educator needs to consider the purpose, conceptual basis, development, and psychometric properties when evaluating the adequacy of any questionnaire or test (Waltz, Strickland, & Lenz, 2005).


Observing health behaviors in several different time periods can help the educator draw conclusions about established patterns of behavior that cannot and should not be drawn from a single observation. Actually watching the learner perform a skill more than once is an excellent way of assessing a psychomotor need. Are all steps performed correctly? Does the learner have any difficulty with manipulating various pieces of equipment? Does the learner require prompting? Learners may believe they can accurately perform a skill or task (e.g., walking with crutches, changing a dressing, giving an injection), but by observing the skill performance the educator can best determine whether additional learning may be needed.

Learners who can observe a videotape of themselves performing a skill can more easily identify their learning needs. In this process, which is known as reflection on action (Grant, 2002), the learner identifies what was done well and what could have been done better in his or her actual performance. Landry, Smith, and Swank (2006) provide evidence to support this method of assessing learning needs in their study measuring mothers’ critiques of their own videotaped responsive behaviors in the home setting that would facilitate their infants’ development.


Initial assessments, progress notes, nursing care plans, staff notes, and discharge planning forms can provide information about the learning needs of clients. Nurse educators need to follow a consistent format for reviewing charts so that they review each chart in the same manner to identify learning needs based on the same information. Also, documentation by other members of the healthcare team, such as physical therapists, social workers, respiratory therapists, and nutritionists, can yield valuable insights with respect to the needs of the learner.

Assessing the Learning Needs of Nursing Staff

Williams (1998) specifically addresses the importance of identifying the learning needs of staff nurses using the methods described in this section.


A written description of what is required to effectively carry out job responsibilities can reflect the potential learning needs of staff. Such information forms the basis for establishing content in an orientation program for new staff, for example, or for designing continuing education opportunities for experienced staff members.


Often staff are asked for ideas for educational programs, and these ideas reflect what they perceive as needs. When conducting a formal educational program, the educator must verify that these requests are congruent with the needs of other staff members.


Trends found in incident reports indicating safety violations or errors in procedures are a source of information in establishing learning needs of staff that education can address.


Educators can identify trends in practice through chart auditing. Does the staff have a learning need in terms of the actual charting? Is a new intervention being implemented? Does the record indicate some inconsistency with implementation of an intervention?


A thorough knowledge of hospital, professional, and healthcare requirements helps to identify possible learning needs of staff. The educator should monitor new rules of practice arising from changes occurring within an institution or external to the organization that may have implications for the delivery of care.

In addition to the methods identified by Williams (1998), self-assessment is an important area to consider when assessing the learning needs of nursing students and staff. Grant (2002), in an article about physician learning needs, identifies the significance of staff self-assessment of needs through reflection on action as well as through diaries, journals, and log books. She also cites the importance of peer review in the assessment process and, most importantly, the need to recognize that needs assessment and learning are part of daily professional life in medicine. The strengths, limitations, opportunities, threats/barriers (SLOT/B) approach or strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis, which has been recommended as a method for self-assessment of nursing students’ learning needs (Sherwin & Stevenson, 2011), is another useful assessment method that promotes professional self-reflection.


Panno (1992), expanding on Knox’s (1974, 1977, 1986) interest in teaching related to adult development and learning, describes a systematic approach for assessing the learning needs of staff nurses and the organizations in which they practice. Knox’s interpretation of how adults learn has important implications for the development and coordination of education programs that are responsive to the backgrounds and aspirations of various adult learners. Panno’s four steps in assessing learning needs are as follows:

1. Define the target population

2. Analyze learner and organizational needs

3. Analyze the perceived needs of the learner and compare them to the actual needs

4. Use data to prioritize identified learning needs

Educators can use this organizing framework to assess staff at multiple levels, from registered nurses to nursing assistants who are typically the target audiences for in-service programs in an institution. Panno (1992) points out that often plans for educational activities are based on personal preference, mandates from administration, intuition, or trends in the profession, which may meet the sponsor’s needs but not necessarily address the needs of the learner. The four-step, systematic approach to needs assessment is useful because it benefits all involved and justifies the resources required for the assessment process.


Once the educator has identified learning needs, the next step is to determine the learner’s readiness to receive information. Readiness to learn can be defined as the time when the learner demonstrates an interest in learning the information necessary to maintain optimal health or to become more skillful in a job. Often, educators have noted that when a patient or staff member asks a question,
the time is prime for learning. Readiness to learn occurs when the learner is receptive, willing, and able to participate in the learning process. It is the responsibility of the educator to discover through assessment exactly when patients or staff are ready to learn, what they need or want to learn, and how to adapt the content to fit each learner.

To assess readiness to learn, the educator must first understand what needs to be taught, collect and validate that information, and then apply the same methods used previously to assess learning needs, including making observations, conducting interviews, gathering information from the learner as well as from other healthcare team members, and reviewing documentation. The educator must perform these tasks before the time when actual learning is to occur.

No matter how important the information is or how much the educator feels the recipient of teaching needs the information, if the learner is not ready, then the information will not be absorbed. The educator, in conjunction with the learner, must determine what needs to be learned and what the learning objectives should be to establish which domain and at which level these objectives should be classified. Otherwise, both the educator’s and the learner’s time could very well be wasted because the established objectives may be beyond the readiness of the learner.

Timing—that is, the point at which teaching should take place—is very important. Anything that affects physical or psychological comfort can affect a learner’s ability and willingness to learn. Consequently, a learner who is not receptive to information at one time may be more receptive to the same information at another time. Because the nurse often has limited contact with patients and family members as a result of short hospital stays or short visits in the outpatient setting, teaching must be brief and basic. Timing also becomes an important factor when working with nursing staff. Readiness to learn is based on the current demands of practice and must correspond to the ever-constant changes in health care. Adults—whether they are patients, family, nursing staff, or students—are eager to learn when the subject of teaching is relevant and applicable to their everyday concerns.

Before teaching can begin, the educator must find the time to first take a PEEK (Lichtenthal, 1990) at the four types of readiness to learn—physical readiness, emotional readiness, experiential readiness, and knowledge readiness. These four types of readiness to learn may either be obstacles or enhancers to learning (Table 4-2).

TABLE 4-2 Take Time to Take a PEEK at the Four Types of Readiness to Learn

P = Physical Readiness

  • Measures of ability

  • Complexity of task

  • Environmental effects

  • Health status

  • Gender

E = Emotional Readiness

  • Anxiety level

  • Support system

  • Motivation

  • Risk-taking behavior

  • Frame of mind

  • Developmental stage

E = Experiential Readiness

  • Level of aspiration

  • Past coping mechanisms

  • Cultural background

  • Locus of control

  • Orientation

K = Knowledge Readiness

  • Present knowledge base

  • Cognitive ability

  • Learning disabilities

  • Learning styles

Source: From C. Lichtenthal, A Self-Study Model on Readiness to Learn, August 1990. Reprinted with permission from Cheryl Lichtenthal Harding.

Physical Readiness

The educator needs to consider five major components of physical readiness—measures of ability, complexity of task, environmental effects, health status, and gender—because they affect the degree or extent to which learning will occur.


Ability to perform a task requires fine and/or gross motor movements, sensory acuity, adequate strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance. Each developmental stage in life is characterized by physical and sensory abilities or is affected by individual disabilities. For example, walking on crutches is a psychomotor skill for which a patient must have the physical ability to be ready to learn. If a person has a visual deficit, the educator can make eyeglasses or a magnifying glass available so that the patient can, for example, see the lines on a piece of equipment such as a spirometer. If the educator is conducting an in-service workshop on lifting and transfer activities, staff must have the endurance level required to return demonstrate this skill. Creating a stimulating and accepting environment by using instructional tools to match learners’ physical and sensory abilities encourages readiness to learn.


Variations in the complexity of the task affect the extent to which the learner can master the behavioral changes in the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. The more complex the task, the more difficult it is to achieve. Psychomotor skills, once acquired, are usually retained better and longer than learning in the other domains (Greer, Hitt, Sitterly, & Slebodnick, 1972). Once ingrained, psychomotor, cognitive, and affective behaviors become habitual and may be difficult to alter. For example, if the learner has been performing a psychomotor skill over a long period of time and then the procedural steps of the task change, the learner must unlearn those steps and relearn the new way. This requirement may increase the complexity of the task and put additional physical demands on the learner by lengthening the time the learner needs to adjust to doing something in a new way. Older adults, in particular, develop elaborate cognitive schemas over the years; when they are faced with information contrary to their preexisting knowledge and beliefs, they find the effort to change difficult, confusing, and time consuming (Kessels, 2003).


An environment conducive to learning helps to hold the learner’s attention and stimulate interest in learning. Unfavorable conditions, such as extremely high levels of noise or frequent interruptions, can interfere with a learner’s accuracy and precision in performing cognitive and manual dexterity tasks. Intermittent noise tends to have greater disruptive effects on learning than the more rapidly habituated steady-state noise. McDonald, Wiczorek, and Walker (2004) examined background noise and interruption to determine their effects on college students learning health information. The results of their research suggest that distraction, including noise, during health teaching adversely affects readiness to learn.

Older adults, in particular, need more time to react and respond to stimuli. Increased inability to receive, process, and transmit information is a characteristic of aging. Environmental demands that make older persons feel rushed to perform tasks in a short time frame can overwhelm them. When an activity is self-paced, older learners respond more favorably.


The amounts of energy available and the individual’s present comfort level are factors that signi ficantly influence that individual’s readiness to learn. Energy-reducing demands associated with
the body’s response to illness require the learner to expend large amounts of physical and psychic energy, leaving little reserve for actual learning. Nurse educators must seriously consider a person’s health status, whether well, acutely ill, or chronically ill, when assessing for readiness.

Healthy learners have energy available for learning. In such a case, readiness to learn about health-promoting behaviors is based on their perception of self-responsibility. The extent to which an individual perceives illness to potentially affect future well-being influences that person’s desire to learn preventive and promotion measures. If learners perceive a threat to their quality of life, they likely will seek more information in an attempt to control the negative effects of an illness (Bubela & Galloway, 1990).

Learners who are acutely ill tend to focus their energies on the physiological and psychological demands of their illness. Learning is minimal in such persons because most of these individuals’ energy is needed for the demands of the illness and gaining immediate relief. Any learning that may occur should be related to treatments, tests, and minimizing pain or other discomforts. As these patients improve and the acute phase of illness diminishes, they can then focus on learning follow-up management and the avoidance of complications.

Educators must assess the readiness to learn of acutely ill patients by observing their energy levels and comfort status. Improvement in physical status usually results in more receptivity to learning. However, medications that induce side effects such as drowsiness, mental depression, impaired depth perception, decreased ability to concentrate, and learner fatigue also reduce task-handling capacity. For example, giving a patient a sedative prior to a learning experience may result in less apprehension, but cognitive and psychomotor abilities may be impaired.

In contrast to acute illness, chronic illness has no time limits and is of long-term duration. Models of how people deal with chronic illness also are useful as frameworks for understanding readiness to learn (Lubkin & Larsen, 2013). The physiological and psychological demands vary in chronic illness and are not always predictable. Patients may go through different stages in dealing with their illness, similar to the adjustment stages of a person experiencing a loss (Boyd, Gleit, Graham, & Whitman, 1998). If the learner is in the avoidance stage, readiness to learn likely will be limited to simple explanations because the patient’s energy is concentrated on denial. Over time, energy levels stabilize and become redirected as awareness of the realities of the situation increase. Readiness to learn may be indicated by the questions the patient asks. Exploring another perspective, Telford, Kralik, and Koch (2006) encourage health professionals to listen carefully to their patients’ stories of how they actually experience the illness, rather than attempt to categorize patients into specific stages. Listening to patient stories may provide clues as to individuals’ readiness to learn.

Burton (2000) describes the Corbin and Strauss (1991) chronic illness trajectory framework. This framework reflects the continual nature of adaptation required in living with chronic illness. In contrast to the Corbin and Strauss model, Patterson (2001) describes a shifting perspectives model that suggests living with chronic illness is an ongoing and continually dynamic process. This model provides an explanation of variations in attention to symptoms over time. Individuals’ perspectives shift in the degree to which illness is in the foreground or background of their world. It is important for nurse educators to understand this cycle when assessing readiness to learn, because they cannot assume that an approach that worked at one time will be just as effective at another time. The receptivity to learning and practicing self-care measures of a person who is chronically ill is not static, but rather fluctuates over time.


Research indicates that women are generally more receptive to medical care and take fewer risks with their health than do men (Ashton, 1999; Bertakis, Rahman, Helms, Callahan, & Robbins, 2000; Rosen, Tsai, & Downs, 2003; Stein & Nyamathi, 2000). This difference may arise because women traditionally have taken on the role of caregivers and, therefore, are more open to health promotion teaching. In addition, women have more frequent contacts with health providers while bearing and raising children. Men, by comparison, tend to be less receptive to healthcare interventions and are more likely to be risk takers. A good deal of this behavior is thought to be socially induced. Changes are beginning to be seen in the health-seeking behavior of men and women as a result of the increased focus on healthier lifestyles and the blending of gender roles in the home and workplace.

Emotional Readiness

Learners must be emotionally ready to learn. Like physical readiness, emotional readiness includes several factors that need to be assessed. These factors include anxiety level, support system, motivation, risk-taking behavior, frame of mind, and developmental stage.


Anxiety influences a person’s ability to perform at cognitive, affective, and psychomotor levels. In particular, it affects patients’ ability to concentrate and retain information (Kessels, 2003; Stephenson, 2006). The level of anxiety may or may not be a hindrance to the learning of new skills: Some degree of anxiety is a motivator to learn, but anxiety that is too low or too high interferes with readiness to learn. On either end of the continuum, mild or severe anxiety may lead to inaction on the part of the learner. If anxiety is low, the individual is not driven to take steps to promote his or her health or prevent diseases. Moderate anxiety, however, drives someone to take action. As the level of anxiety increases, emotional readiness peaks and then begins to decrease in an inversely U-shaped curvilinear manner based on the Yerkes-Dodson law (Ley, 1979), as shown in Figure 4-1. A moderate level of anxiety is best for success in learning and is considered the optimal time for teaching.

Fear is a major contributor to anxiety and, therefore, negatively affects readiness to learn in any of the learning domains. The performance of a task in and of itself may be fear inducing to a patient because of its very nature or meaning. For example, learning self-administration of a medication by injection may produce fear for the patient because of the necessity of self-inflicted pain and the perceived danger of the needle breaking off into the skin. A staff member or nursing student, in contrast, may have real difficulty mastering a skill because of the fear of harming a patient or of failing to do a procedure correctly.

Fear may also lead patients to deny their illness or disability, which interferes with their ability to learn. If a situation is life threatening or overwhelming, anxiety will be high and readiness to learn will be diminished. Although teaching may be imperative for survival, learning usually can take place only if instructions are simple and are repeated over and over again. In such circumstances, families and support persons also should be educated to reinforce information and assist with caregiving responsibilities. In later stages of adaptation, acceptance of illness or disability allows the individual to be more receptive to learning because anxiety levels are less acute.

Discovering which stressful events or major life changes the learner is experiencing gives the educator clues about that person’s emotional readiness to learn. The nurse must first identify the source and level of anxiety. High stress levels can be moderated by encouraging the person to participate in activities such as support groups and
the use of relaxation techniques such as imagery and yoga (Stephenson, 2006). After anxiety levels have been moderated and anxiety has been lessened, education is an excellent intervention to spur someone to take action when dealing with a stressful life event.

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Sep 9, 2016 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Determinants of Learning

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