December 22, 2011

Practicality and Relevance in Pharmacy Education

By Sarah R. Thiel, Pharm.D., PGY-1 Pharmacy Resident, the Johns Hopkins Hospital 

It’s an eye-opening experience when a student steps out of the classroom and into a real-world work environment. The ideals of how things should be done (as taught in the classroom) do not always reflect the way they are actually done. This is because there are often workplace barriers, such as the financial and political issues, that hinder the best practices from being fully implemented. The modern-day pharmacy curriculum has put a great deal of emphasis on developing and practicing clinical skills. Relying on experiential learning as the only mechanism to learn about issues that arise in the day-to-day practice of pharmacy may be putting students behind their other health-care professional colleagues. In order to develop pharmacists with a more solid foundation and critical thinking skills, it is absolutely necessary to bring practical issues into the classroom! 

As adult learners, information that is relevant and useful is more likely to be retained and applied. Therefore, teaching students practical information and practical ways to apply the information, appeals to the needs of the students without sacrificing content. I’m sure many of us have experienced a class where we think to ourselves “Why am I here? How is this relevant to me? I’m never going to use this information anyways!” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead students would think to themselves “Wow! This information is important! I may not need it tomorrow, but I’ll at least appreciate and understand how to use it when I do.” As our profession continues to strive to be patient-centered instead of product-focused, shouldn’t our pharmacy curricula follow suit and be student-centered? Shouldn’t we be developing our students to identify workplace practices that are not up to the standards taught in school? And by doing so, give students the foundation to help improve the practice of pharmacy? As future teachers and preceptors, we should do our students the favor of bringing more practical and relevant examples, experiences, and stories to their attention. Other professional curricula, such as law, have already started to do this.1 

William Lubawy, Ph.D., a faculty member at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, suggests that demonstrating relevance of the presented material to students is one of many ‘Best Practices’ in teaching.2  Specifically, the best practice is to:
provide evidence of the relevance of course material. Do the students understand why it is important to learn the material? Are real world, practical, contemporary examples presented? Is basic science presented in the context of application to practice-related problems, commonly used drugs, common disease conditions, etc? What does the instructor do to provide evidence of relevancy?”
Furthermore, Dr. Lubawy considers relevancy a key for developing critical thinking and problem solving abilities in students.2 

While there may not be many resources that explore the concept of practicality in didactic training, it’s an important one to think about. For example, Think Watson, an affiliate of Pearson Learning, reports that employers rated critical thinking skills of four-year college graduates as “excellent” in only 28% and as “adequate” in 63%.3  Do you think pharmacy graduates would be rated much higher? I think that increasing practicality and demonstrating relevance in classroom-based instruction could help improve this critical thinking skill statistic.  Teaching students practical questions to ask and evaluate will improve their ability to handle similar issues in the future. While there may need to be a ‘right’ answer for an exam, adding practical, real-life twists will help improve student knowledge and application of skills. For example,the best therapy for a patient may be a medication only available as an intravenous formulation. But what if the patient does not have IV access? Community pharmacists know all too well that the ‘best’ therapy can turn into no therapy if that patient’s insurance won’t cover the medication.  Introducing students to practical issues, questions, and approaches while they are still in the classroom can help get our students ahead when they begin introductory and advance practice experiences.

I was inspired to delve into the topic after reading my college of pharmacy alumni announcement about the 2011 recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award.  This award relies heavily on student input regarding the impact of the instruction provided by the nominees. I went back through the previous winners and thought to myself, what is one attribute that each of these teachers share? They all strived to make instructional practical and relevant!4  The 2011-2012 President of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, Brian Crabtree, Pharm.D., considers relevance an important component in evaluating teaching excellence.5  Shouldn't we make it a priority to bring practicality and relevance into the classroom?

1.  University of Michigan Law School. The Practicality of the Practicum.
2.  Lubawy, WC. (2003). Evaluating Teaching Using the Best Practices Model. Am J Pharm Educ. 2003; 67(3):1-3.
4.  University of Michigan School of Pharmacy.  2011 Teaching Excellence Award Winner.
5.  Crabtree BL. Excellence and Relevance. Am J Pharm Educ. 2011; 75: Article 173.

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