Assessment Case Study - Learning Tools for Foundational Knowledge in Veterinary Medicine
Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
June 15, 2018
“Keeping the assessments simple mean the focus can be on getting through all of the content they need to know.” – Dr. Cameron Knight
In the first and second years of the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, students have a lot of foundational information to learn. They need to acquire quickly a large body of knowledge and skills to start working with live animals in clinical courses. One important area of study for future veterinarians is pathology, the study of diseases and their causes and effects. Dr. Cameron Knight helps teach the two pathology courses that students take throughout the first two years of the vet program, VETM 342 and 421. These courses build off one another, and work together to provide students a broad background knowledge about diseases they will potentially encounter in their practice. The objective of the courses is to be able to recognize different lesions or diseases and understand their pathogenesis. Although the courses focus on mainly memory and understanding, rather than higher-level synthesis, they still require a lot of student engagement. Traditional testing methods seem to fit well with assessing students’ knowledge of diseases. However, Dr. Knight tries to promote learning using simple but effective learning tools such as flashcards. Using straightforward assessments and helpful learning tools can also reduce anxiety in students, since they have very clear expectations and methods of preparation.
Dr. Knight uses the application Flashcards Deluxe to create flashcards for his students based on each lecture he delivers in both courses. This app is simple to use, inexpensive to download and works on any mobile device. Spreadsheets containing several hundred practice questions and model answers can be uploaded directly into the app from a computer without having to re-type or format anything. This helps him efficiently create flashcards that can be accessed by students at any time. There are more than a thousand cards created that encompass his parts of the courses. Question types include multiple choice, single word answer, and longer paragraphs outlining the pathogenesis of a disease. Although creating the spreadsheets for the cards initially took a lot of time, the information has stayed consistent for several years, so the same sets of flashcards can be used repeatedly with minimal updates.
Students download the app onto their smartphones and are able to access all of the course flashcards. Dr. Knight does not care how students use them. They can review them independently, work in groups, or not use them at all. He does note that veterinary students are very motivated and almost all of his students seem to use the tool. They are a purely formative assessment and there is no grade associated with them. When using the flashcards, students do not have to worry about creating their own study guides and potentially missing important points or adding extraneous information. Everything is provided to them. Flashcards are an excellent tool for self and peer testing
Students tend to be very successful in the course and in the program, but Dr. Knight questions whether veterinary students would be successful no matter what teaching methods were used. Since each veterinary class cohort is so small, only high-achieving students, with strong desires to be veterinarians get in. However, Dr. Knight and his colleagues strive to both challenge and support students. The program is particularly stressful for students because failing a single course means they are not allowed to move forward to the next year of the professional veterinary program, and must repeat an entire year or withdraw from the program. Students are under a lot of pressure when it comes to assessments, so not having to be worried about what they are tested on partially reduces the stress of the pathology courses.
While Dr. Knight will continue to look into different assessment methods in the future, the testing seems to fit well with the desired outcome of the course and the type of content that students are learning. Whatever methods he uses for assessment, he believes that the flashcards will remain a staple tool for the parts of the courses he teaches. They are a simple way for students to stay on top of all the content. Students refer to the flashcards after the course ends, if they need to quickly look up a disease or review for courses that require this knowledge. Dr. Knight says he has seen students flipping through flashcards outside of practical labs or before going into upper year lectures. This is rewarding for him because he sees the lasting impact that the pathology flashcards have on students.
Traditional assessment methods can be effective and useful, especially in courses where the objectives are to remember and understand content, rather than to apply or evaluate. There are many opportunities for lab and project-based assessments later in the program, but as Dr. Knight points out, students need the foundational knowledge to be able to do them. Assessing this type of content can be challenging, so sometimes, it is best to stick to what is reliable.