It's called problem-based learning, and Purdue is the first school of veterinary medicine to successfully integrate the format into a traditional curriculum.
"Conventional wisdom says it's 'all or nothing' when it comes to this type of teaching and learning," says Robert "Pete" Bill, assistant professor of clinical pharmacology who helped design the curriculum. "That's why Cornell and Mississippi State universities converted their entire programs. We've done it with a very specific portion of our veterinary program and created a hybrid of sorts."
Purdue students take a new problem-solving class over four consecutive semesters during the first half of their academic careers.
"I think we're offering our students the best of both worlds," Bill says. "They get traditional classroom instruction and an opportunity to put it to use at the same time. It helps them realize that they are learning for their profession, not just next week's test."
The new course of study forces students to solve problems rather than just memorize information for exams.
"Force is the right word for it," Bill says. "Many students are very uncomfortable with the course initially because it asks them to speculate upon possible answers before they have all the facts."
Starting last fall, the classes became part of the core requirements for earning a doctor of veterinary medicine degree at Purdue. Instructors were told to anticipate some anxiety from students, because most had not encountered anything like it before.
"The students accepted into the vet program are high achievers to begin with, so they expect a lot of themselves," Bill says. "But now we've changed the rules, and that's difficult for those who have the system figured out and have been successful in it."
The idea of problem-based learning is not new. Medical schools have been using it as an effective teaching tool for years, and some business schools use a form of it in management classes. Its application to the training of veterinarians is fairly recent.
Students are divided into groups of six or seven and given a case on paper -- such as a horse with a deformed limb or an incontinent cat. They start with only the most basic information about the animal, such as its physical appearance and the owner's description of its behavior.
The students then speculate what might be wrong with the animal and make a hypothesis. This is where the real, practical learning begins.
"The students not only have to apply what they're getting in their major science classes like physiology and anatomy, but they also have to figure out what they don't know and go find it," Bill says.
During each subsequent class session, the students share what they have learned on their own about the case and receive additional information such as blood test or surgical results, X-rays and electrocardiograms. Because Purdue students don't learn how to interpret these diagnostic tools until their third year of study, they have to rely on their understanding of normal physiology and anatomy to figure out what could be wrong.
The eventual goal is to solve the case, but students also are graded on their ability to gather information.
"These classes liven up a course load that some students find a bit dry during their first two years," Bill says. "It helps them understand how important the basic sciences are to becoming a good clinical veterinarian. Students are going to be much more attentive to a lecture on kidney function if their study case involves a kitten in kidney failure."
Or an incontinent cat.
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