Conceptual Learning in Nursing Education:

What is conceptual learning

Conceptual learning is an educational method that centers on big-picture ideas and learning how to organize and categorize information. Unlike more traditional learning models which concentrate on the ability to recall specific facts (such as the dates of an event or the twenty possible causes of a particular illness), conceptual learning focuses on understanding broader principles or ideas (what we call “concepts”) that can later be applied to a variety of specific examples.

To some, conceptual learning can be seen as more of a top-down approach versus the bottom-up model used in more traditional learning. To others who view traditional learning as rote memorization of facts and figures, conceptual learning is seen as a means for getting students to think more critically about the new subjects and situations they encounter.

A Real World Comparison

Let's consider the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In a traditional learning model, a teacher might concentrate on the facts surrounding this Alaskan oil spill — when it happened, what caused it, what its effects were. But in a conceptual learning model, the teacher would likely begin by teaching students about the broader concept of environmental sustainability and then introduce the Exxon Valdez oil spill as one specific example that had a negative impact.

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Concepts Exemplars

Concepts are mental categories for facts, objects, events, people, ideas — even skills and competencies — that have a common set of features across multiple situations and contexts. Concepts can range from simple to complex according to how easily they can be defined.

Click here for some examples of concepts.

So if concepts are the broad principles or classifications, exemplars then, are the "typical examples" or "excellent models" of that principle. For example, if you are teaching about the concept of fruit, then some good exemplars would be apples, oranges, and bananas. If love is the concept at hand, depending on the type of course you are teaching, some exemplars to use could be the relationship of a mother and daughter, or a group of friends.

Concepts (broader) vs. Topics (more specific)
Fruit
Apple, Banana, Tomato
Transportation
Car, Train, Bicycle
Politician
President, Mayor, Bob Dole
Love
Mother & Child, Patriotism,
Forgiveness
Change
Weather, The Civil War,
Growing Older
Culture
Native Americans, Christmas,
The Glass Ceiling
Conceptual Learning in Nursing
In nursing, a conceptual approach involves examining concepts that link to the delivery of patient
care. Nursing concepts typically fall into one of three categories:
concepts that help us better understand our patients' behavior and family dynamic
concepts that help us make sense of the health conditions experienced by patients
concepts that guide our professional practice in the context of health care
Exemplars then, are often the particular human conditions or environmental factors that help
illustrate the concept. So if inflammation is the concept at hand, then conditions like asthma,
bronchitis, meningitis, and tonsillitis would all be appropriate exemplars of inflammation in the
nursing environment.
Read on to learn more about conceptual learning
in nursing education and why it helps students
and programs in the long term.

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The Alaskan Oil Spill:
A Case Study in Conceptual Learning vs. Traditional Learning

Let's consider the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In a traditional learning model, a teacher might concentrate on the facts surrounding this Alaskan oil spill — when it happened, what caused it, what its effects were. But in a conceptual learning model, the teacher would likely begin by teaching students about the broader concept of environmental sustainability and then introduce the Exxon Valdez oil spill as one specific example that had a negative impact.

In the traditional learning model, students would walk away knowing specific pieces of information, like that the oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989; it involved an oil tanker that spilled millions of gallons of crude oil; and it is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.

However, in a conceptual learning model, students would first learn about the concept of environmental sustainability (how it involves decisions and actions that help or harm the natural world and its ability to support human life), and then touch on a few significant examples that fall under this concept, such as: Exxon's Alaskan oil spill and Google's Google Green initiative. In some instances, students might even go on to discuss the parallels or cause and effect relationship between these two examples.

Examples of Concepts

Concrete concepts have aspects or dimensions that are easily seen, heard, or touched. Fruit would be an example of a concrete concept due to its tangible characteristics of being seed-associated, fleshy, and plant-derived.
Semi-concrete concepts have some combination of concrete and non-concrete characteristics. Take the semi-concrete concept of a politician, for instance. Some characteristics of a politician could be concrete, such as a holder or candidate for an elected office. However, other characteristics may not be as concrete, such as one who serves the public.
Abstract concepts do not have many (if any) absolute characteristics that are easy to comprehend with the senses. Unlike concrete and semi-concrete concepts, abstract concepts are not explained by a list of well-defined rules or characteristics. More often, they are understood by mental images or beliefs about its characteristics. Love would be a good example of an abstract concept, as the characteristics of love might differ from one person to the next.