Conceptual learning, or concept learning, is a learning method as well as a form of critical thinking in which individuals master the ability to categorize and organize data by creating mental logic-based structures. This process requires both knowledge construction and acquisition because individuals first identify key attributes that would make certain subjects fall in the same category or concept. Knowledge construction is a constructive learning process in which individuals use what is familiar or what they have experienced to understand another subject matter, while knowledge acquisition is a learning process wherein a student acquires knowledge from an acknowledged expert. Conceptual teaching is increasing in popularity, especially when used for math and clinical subjects, but applying the method to explain more complex concepts can be a struggle for many educators.
This learning method is often compared to procedural learning, considered the most conventional and widely used method of teaching. Procedural learning requires individuals to memorize procedures but does not require the understanding of concepts. Conceptual learning does not require any kind of memorization, and instead focuses instead on the understanding of the concepts or structures behind different operations or procedures.
Supporters of procedural learning believe that students’ memorization of operations will eventually lead to conceptual learning, but this is not always the case. Studies have shown that this type of learning can lead to procedural learning, but the reverse does not produce the same results. Students who undergo procedural learning first have a hard time applying their knowledge in new or unfamiliar situations due to an insufficient grasp of the concepts behind the subject matter.
Conceptual learning and teaching may be more easily understood by observing how they are applied in a real-life situation. In nursing education, for example, conceptual teaching is encouraged because it is believed to help students understand more about the different relationships that make up any emergency or workplace situation they encounter. Aided by conceptual learning, nursing students are able to react more effectively and efficiently in almost any given situation.
In general, conceptual learning is largely dependent on conceptual teaching. For this type of learning process to work, educators must learn to take into account different learning styles and ensure that their students have a full grasp of the subject matter. Educators must also learn how to apply different teaching styles to ensure that all concepts are explained properly and completely.