Skip to main content

Situated learning theory in health professions education research: a scoping review


At a time when cognitive and behavioral theories dominated the landscape of learning theories, Lave and Wenger’s situated learning theory (SLT) opened new territory by illuminating social and cultural learning processes. Many researchers and educators in the health professions embraced this theory, but few have considered how SLT has been used and what has been learned or improved through its use in health professions education (HPE). In this scoping review, the authors examine these questions and consider opportunities for future work with SLT in HPE. The authors followed Levac’s modified scoping review framework. They conducted a search of CINAHL, ERIC, PubMed, Scopus, and Web of Science for articles referencing SLT or related concepts in HPE between 2006 and 2016. Two reviewers screened all titles and abstracts, then screened full text for inclusion based on substantive treatment of SLT. Two authors extracted, analyzed and synthesized data from the final set of 193 articles. The authors identified two patterns of theory use. One sought an understanding of social learning processes in a specific context. The other aimed to design and/or evaluate interventions associated with communities of practice. These patterns are similar to other literatures (e.g., general education, healthcare, and organizational development) and, according to Lave and Wenger, may reflect confusion about the purpose, stance, and terminology of SLT. The authors discuss their findings in relation to primary source literature and consider opportunities for HPE researchers to employ and contribute to SLT going forward.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


Download references


Evans Whitacker for assistance with search strategy and article retrieval. Leslie Floren, Holly Nishamura, and Patrick Yuan for assistance with initial screening and article retrieval.


Society for Directors of Research in Medical Education (SDRME).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bridget C. O’Brien.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Uniformed Services University or the Department of Defense.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 32 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (PDF 295 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

O’Brien, B.C., Battista, A. Situated learning theory in health professions education research: a scoping review. Adv in Health Sci Educ 25, 483–509 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Communities of practice
  • Health professions education
  • Identity
  • Legitimate peripheral participation
  • Scoping review
  • Situated learning