Government policies have emphasised the importance of patient and client involvement in all aspects of health and social care delivery, with a corresponding impetus for their involvement in the education of practitioners. Professional education programmes adopt andragogical, student-centred approaches and incorporate both academic and practice based learning and assessments. Practice experience is recognised as a crucial aspect of student learning and has become a major focus of quality reviews in health and social care education. Whilst it might seem self-evident that students on practice placements will learn from their interactions with patients and clients, this is a relatively neglected area for formal modeling, evaluation and research. This study, therefore, explores pre-qualifying nursing, midwifery and social work students’ experiences of learning from patients and clients during practice placements. The research project is underpinned by a descriptive phenomenological approach and the extensive data are analysed using phenomenological reduction (Giorgi, 1989a; 1989b). Two key themes and six categories emerged from the data. The first theme is presented as the ‘Ways of Learning’ and this comprises the categories of: facilitation of learning; critical incidents/patient stories; and role modeling. The second theme is presented as the ‘Nature of Learning’ and comprises three categories: professional ideals; professional relationships; and understanding patients’ and clients’ perspectives. It is evident that contemporary theories, including andragogy, social learning, experiential, reflective and transformative learning theories, remain relevant to professional education. The new knowledge obtained in this research is that the most powerful learning opportunities result from unplanned, informal learning opportunities involving interactions with patients and clients. However, this is not fully explained by these contemporary learning theories. This thesis will, therefore, argue that complexity theory is relevant to the requirements of professional education programmes. It will present an overarching framework to explain the data from this study and will propose strategies to harness the complexity inherent in this important aspect of student learning.
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