How our instructors are enriching student education

Associate professor Lynne Nelson (left) with WSU intern Taylor Gwinn (’13 DVM).

After giving a test to third-year DVM students in her small animal medicine class, associate professor Lynne Nelson made a startling discovery. She found that when students were given the name of a disease, they had no trouble listing the symptoms. But when presented with a patient scenario listing those same symptoms, many students were unable to work backward to make a diagnosis.

“It really showed how well they do on recall versus clinical problem solving,” says Nelson. “I wondered why there such a big difference in skills and how I could help them get better at using the knowledge.”

Dr. Nelson is one of a growing number of faculty members at the college to integrate active learning into the classroom curriculum. For example, during lectures Dr. Nelson will go over different aspects of a patient’s case with her students. On Fridays, known in her classroom as “Flip Fridays,” students take the information they learned during the week to make diagnoses and recommend treatments.

“It is how we expect them to think about a case when they hit the clinical floor,” said Nelson. “After this class they at least know how to start to approach a case and where to find answers to their questions.”

Taylor Gwinn (’13 DVM), now a veterinary intern at WSU, took Dr. Nelson’s class during her third year. She found that compared to traditional lecture classes, with active learning she didn’t have to study the material as long to remember it.

“Partly it was because I understood the material better when it was taught to me this way,” says Gwinn. “With lectures, I would have had to go over and over the material because I didn’t learn it as well the first time.”

And because she could walk through a patient case slower and without consequence in class, it was also a good stepping stone from her third-year classes to fourth-year clinics. As an intern, she has used those active teaching principles to better teach current students.

When we have better teachers, our students learn better. Our goal is to make students independent life-long learners.

Steve Hines, associate dean for teaching and learning and director of the Teaching Academy

Faculty at the college created the Teaching Academy in 2010 to foster this type of innovative curriculum. Compared to standard classroom lecturing, when students are actively engaged they learn more, are better able to remember what they’ve learned, and their problem solving skills improve.

“From research we know there are better ways of teaching than hour after hour of lecture,” says Steve Hines, associate dean for teaching and learning and director of the Teaching Academy. “When students are engaged the material is internalized, not just memorized.”

Known as scholarship-based teaching, faculty are trained in the best teaching practices to give students the best education. Through the Teaching Academy, faculty have the opportunity to attend workshops, informal “brown bag” seminars, and join the academy’s book club. This summer alone, 46 people signed up for the book club to learn better ways to reach their students. And having a community helps to foster new ideas and gives instructors feedback about their teaching.

“The Teaching Academy has been essential to my transformation as an instructor,” says Phil Mixter, a clinical associate professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences since 1995 and the 2012 recipient of the WSU Distinguished Teaching Award. “Having colleagues to bounce ideas off of and get feedback about what works well and what doesn’t has been invaluable.”

Besides training instructors to become better teachers, the Teaching Academy encourages faculty to practice academic scholarship to learn how these teaching methods improve education, recruitment, and student retention. Mixter, in collaboration with the WSU College of Education and the Teaching Academy, is developing a survey to identify students who are unsure of their future and may consider leaving WSU. Knowing this information could be used to revise curriculum and keep more students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs.

“The Teaching Academy makes this kind of research possible,” says Mixter, who plans to publish results that can then be used by instructors at other universities. “We can move to a model where we have some time-tested ways to evaluate teaching methods and elevate instruction in the college.”

Ultimately, better trained instructors and tested methods of successful teaching will help our students be more successful. Having the skills to learn is more important than the knowledge base because things are always changing in medicine, explains Hines. If instructors can teach students what they need to know and teach them how to learn, then Hines believes they are best meeting the needs of the profession.

“When we have better teachers, our students learn better,” said Hines. “Our goal is to make students independent life-long learners.”