What is "good use" of theory in health professions education? A Case Study of Communities of Practice and Situated Learning Theory

Lecture by: Bridget O’Brien, PhD

Critiques of health professions education research have prompted members of the community to put theoretical and conceptual frameworks to better use in their scholarly work. Many scholars aim to do this, but find it challenging to incorporate theory in ways that enrich their ideas, methods, findings, and implications.  In this presentation, I will draw on findings from my review of literature using Communities of Practice and Situated Learning Theory to illustrate ways in which theory has (and has not) been put to good use in health professions education. From these examples, I will suggest ways to use these theories and others more effectively in HPE scholarship.

Objectives. By the end of this session audience members will be able to:

  1. Characterize ways of using theory in HPE publications.

  2. Describe key concepts in Communities of Practice and Situated Learning Theory

  3. Identify studies that make good use of theory (especially CoP and SLT)

  4. Suggest ways to improve use of theory in HPE scholarship


Bridget O’ Brien, PhD . has been a faculty member in the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, since 2008. As an Associate Professor affiliated with the Office of Medical Education, Research and Development in Medical Education unit (RaDME), she teaches and mentors faculty and learners in several programs, including UCSF-University of Utrecht doctoral program in Health Professions Education, the Health Professions Education Pathway and the Teaching Scholars Program. At the San Francisco VA, she directs scholarship and evaluation for the Center of Excellence in Primary Care Education and a Fellowship in Health Professions Education Evaluation and Research. In 2015 she was selected as one of five national Macy Faculty Scholar, supported by the Joshiah Macy Jr. Foundation. As a co-author of Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, she brought workplace learning to the forefront of educational innovation and reform. Her current research focuses on workplace learning in the context of longitudinal relationships, interprofessional team-based care, and systems improvement. Dr. O'Brien received her Master's in Organizational Behavior from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and her PhD in Education from the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkley.