Student-centered active learning exercise put to test at vet school

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The benefits of an hour-long student-centered activity as a learning experience for veterinary students instead of a standard lecture have been described in a recently published paper.
File image by NeonBrand

The benefits of an hour-long student-centered activity as a learning experience for veterinary students instead of a standard lecture have been described in a recently published paper.

The study involved 103 fourth-year veterinary students at New Zealand’s Massey University. Fifty-one received an hour-long lecture on equine diarrhea, while the rest undertook a student-centered active learning exercise on the same subject.

Senior lecturer Stuart Gordon and his fellow researchers, writing in the journal Education Sciences, said problem-solving abilities, creative and critical thinking, communication skills, and team-work are now recognized as fundamental to professional success. This is especially so in vocational professions such as veterinary science.

Tertiary education is now obliged to provide opportunities for students to become proficient in these qualities.

With this in mind, Gordon, an equine science senior lecturer, attempted to increase student engagement by developing a new active learning, student-centered one-hour teaching episode on equine diarrhea to replace the traditional lecture format.

The student-centered teaching episode involved a series of tasks on equine diarrhea that exposed the students to methods of clinical reasoning while providing them with a framework for the organization of knowledge.

The tasks/challenges were presented to the students, working within groups of about eight, in a sequential fashion over the course of the lesson.

The order of presentation of the tasks allowed a clinical case of diarrhea in a horse to be slowly built up and provided the opportunity for the students to approach the case in a logical and sequential manner.

“It was hoped that the emphasis on contextual learning and clinical relevancy would help to enhance the students’ motivation to learn and to generate the kind of elaborated knowledge necessary in veterinary medicine,” the researchers said.

Time limits were allocated to each of the 10 tasks so that all could be addressed within the hour. The tasks, presented during the learning episode, required the students to quickly research the topic and formulate a response within the limited time available.

The clinical problems encouraged students to develop clinical reasoning skills by acquiring facts, identifying problems, generating hypotheses, and identifying additional learning needs that pertained to the pathophysiology, diagnostics, treatment, and prognosis of the clinical case.

The students had full access to the Massey University online learning environment that contained links to relevant readings and websites.

While the students were working on their cases, Gordon moved between groups as a roaming facilitator.

“The aim was to promote an environment of inquiry by asking probing, reflecting, and involving questions that stimulated interest and motivated the students to continue.”

The 103 students were surveyed on their responses, which identified the main advantages of each approach.

The main advantages of the lecture, as described by the students, was that it was appropriate to adequately prepare them for conventional exam questions, was well organised and well managed by the lecturer, and had sufficient time allocated to it.

The four key advantages of the active learning episode were that it facilitated the process of clinical reasoning, enhanced their problem-solving skills, enhanced their communication skills, and actively involved students in the learning process.

“Students seemed to regard the active learning episode as more representative of the way information and problems are encountered in the workplace,” Gordon and his fellow researchers wrote.

“Students worried, however, that the active learning teaching approach might not prepare them adequately for traditional examinations. It is important, therefore, that the assessment format is appropriately aligned with the active learning approach.”

Students were also concerned that the active learning approach provided insufficient content knowledge that might leave them shortchanged on their basic veterinary knowledge.

“This highlights the need for veterinary education to stop relying on excessive content delivery and to instead focus on teaching students how to access and critically analyze information efficiently and how to solve problems effectively.”

Students also expressed anxiety over the introduction of a new learning technique, highlighting the need for students to be introduced to the new teaching method gradually and with sensitivity.

The researchers said the study showed that the transformation of a single one-hour teaching lecture into an active learning, student-centered activity is a relatively straightforward exercise. It proved rewarding for both the teacher and the learners.

They said that although the active learning method described was not novel, they hoped that fellow educators, across any tertiary discipline, might find that the method used in this case represented a quick and simple way of transforming a single lecture into an enjoyable and engaging learning activity.

They believed the student-centered approach could be employed in an online learning environment using Zoom breakout rooms.

“The authors hope that tertiary educators will recognize that the methods and principles of active learning discussed in this paper remain applicable and relevant to the online learning environment.”

The study team comprised Gordon, Charlotte Bolwell and Jessica Raney, all with Massey University’s School of Veterinary Science; and Nick Zepke, with the university’s Institute of Education.

Gordon, S.J.G.; Bolwell, C.F.; Raney, J.L.; Zepke, N. Transforming a Didactic Lecture into a Student-Centered Active Learning Exercise—Teaching Equine Diarrhea to Fourth-Year Veterinary Students. Educ. Sci. 2022, 12, 68. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci12020068

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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