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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

The Importance of Learning

Social process

Learning is defined as the social process of construing and appropriating a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience as a guide to action (Mezirow, 1994). The significance of medical education was embedded in the constitution of the General Medical Council (GMC) as early as in 1868 when an amended motion was passed that ‘A Committee be appointed to consider and report in what order the various subjects of medical education which have been deemed requisite by the Council may be taught with most advantage, and how examinations on them ought to be arranged’. In what appears to have been a heated debate between Council members, one member remarked that medical students should be taught to see with their own eyes and judge with their own brains rather than being spoon fed.


To a large extent this still applies today, although there is more of an expectation that students need to learn by themselves throughout their undergraduate training. Previous generations of doctors learnt by cramming their subjects without having in-depth knowledge in what they were supposed to learn, whereas it is now common practice for undergraduates and postgraduates to be expected to adopt a problem-based learning approach, mixed with learning on the job.

In fact it is received wisdom that doctors never stop learning. It is in the nature of those who practise medicine that the desire to gain knowledge never ceases, influenced no doubt by clinical challenges, formal and informal tests of knowledge and in some, an inherent quest for perfection. In modern day medicine, practice based learning and evidence based practice have become a norm.


In psychiatry, where patient contact is essential, the risk of not keeping up-to-date has direct consequences on the patient. But on the more constructive end, a patient well treated reinforces and encourages better practice in the future.


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