How do undergraduate nursing students learn in the hospital setting? A scoping review of conceptualisations, operationalisations and learning activities

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Objectives Although clinical learning is pivotal for nursing education, the learning process itself and the terminology to address this topic remain underexposed in the literature. This study aimed to examine how concepts equivalent to 'learning in practice' are used and operationalised and which learning activities are reported in the nursing education literature. The final aim was to propose terminology for future studies. Design The scoping framework proposed by Arksey and O'Malley was used to answer the research questions and address gaps in the literature. Two systematic searches were conducted in PubMed, EBSCO/ERIC and EBSCO/CINAHL between May and September 2018: first, to identify concepts equivalent to 'learning in practice' and, second, to find studies operationalising these concepts. Eligible articles were studies that examined the regular learning of undergraduate nursing students in the hospital setting. Conceptualisations, theoretical frameworks and operationalisations were mapped descriptively. Results relating to how students learn were synthesised using thematic analysis. Quality assessment was performed using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist. Results From 9360 abstracts, 17 articles were included. Five studies adopted a general, yet not explained, synonym for learning in practice, and the other approaches focused on the social, unplanned or active nature of learning. All studies used a qualitative approach. The small number of studies and medium study quality hampered a thorough comparison of concepts. The synthesis of results revealed five types of learning activities, acknowledged by an expert panel, in which autonomy, interactions and cognitive processing were central themes. Conclusions Both theoretical approaches and learning activities of the current body of research fit into experiential learning theories, which can be used to guide and improve future studies. Gaps in the literature include formal and informal components of learning, the relation between learning and learning outcomes and the interplay between behaviour and cognitive processing.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere029397
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2019


  • learning in practice
  • undergraduate nursing education

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