November 28, 2018

Life-Long Learning - Not Just Content Expertise but Teaching Strategies Too

By Rachel Rossi, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

At every stage of my education, a variation of the same refrain surfaced over and over again: you must become a lifelong learner! As a young student, it really didn’t seem relevant to me as I was only concerned about the present class, academic year, or course of study. However, as a new graduate and licensed professional, I now have continuing education requirements and “life-long learning” has new meaning for me. While continuing education is a requirement, it is important to keep up with the up-to-date practices and ideas in your field of study.  Most pharmacists think about learning about new drugs on the market and the latest treatment guidelines from the premier healthcare societies. But what life-long learning related to other professional responsibilities?

As a resident, for the first time, I have had the opportunity to precept pharmacy students. This responsibility has opened up my eyes to the challenges my professors must feel keeping students engaged while (simultaneously) ensuring all the most important information is adequately covered. Which teaching method(s) should be used? Should instructors go the traditional route, in which concepts are shared directly through written materials or a lecture, or through learner-centered activities? While the traditional methods are comfortable in that the instructor maintains all of the control and knows what will be covered, the students don’t always benefit from that teaching style. Thus, the emergence of student-centered learning. So, if student-centered learning is desirable, why don’t more professors use it in their classrooms? Although resources and time are certainly important variables, lack of exposure to new and creative ways of teaching may be an explanation for some. For teachers, continuing education in their subject matter is important but keeping up with the latest teaching methods is also essential.

The On the Cutting Edge Program is a national program established in 2002 for the purpose of bringing together geoscience undergraduate faculty to share teaching strategies and research as well as provide seminars and workshops for teachers to actively learn about new teaching tools.1,2  These workshops serve as resources for teachers in the science field to learn from each other and gain insight into new teaching practices. From 2002 to 2012 over 2000 faculty and 800 postdoctoral fellows and graduate students have participated in the On the Cutting Edge program which included over 100 workshops and professional development events.3

Researchers measured the impact of the On the Cutting Edge Program on geoscience faculty, focusing on four questions: 1) Has there been a measurable change in undergraduate geoscience instruction moving from teacher-centered lecture to student-engaged teaching practices? 2) What role does learning about teaching play in supporting these pedagogical changes? 3) Is faculty participation in Cutting Edge associated with increased use of student-engaged teaching practices? 4) What impacts do participants recognize as coming from the workshops?3 In order to assess these questions, 120 participants from the On the Cutting Edge program were interviewed at several time points.  In addition, nationwide surveys were sent to 10,000 geoscience faculty in 2004, 2009, and 2012. Each of these surveys garnered over 2000 responses from faculty from both four-year and two-year institutions.

Although the survey respondents were not all participants in the program, several general conclusions were drawn from the data collected. Teaching strategies were categorized by estimated class time spent on interactive activities, questions, and discussion.  If greater 20% of class time spent on these activities, the class session was considered student-centered learning. The frequency of utilizing these strategies was also measured, and teaching styles were categorized as frequent use if the strategy was used on a weekly basis or in nearly every class or infrequent use if it was never used or used once or only several times.

The research found there was an increase in student-centered teaching strategies from 2004 to 2012 based on the results of the survey data.  Faculty who were “education-focused” (those who reported significant activity related to improving teaching) showed more frequent use of student-centered learning strategies compared to faculty who were “research-focused” (those who reported significant geoscience research activity).3 These findings are important because it correlates continuing education for teachers who moved toward more student-engaged classroom experiences.

In addition, the researchers compared the teaching strategies of survey respondents that participated in the On the Cutting Edge program to those that did not. They found that participants in the program workshops and those who use the website were 1.5 times more likely to spend at least 20% of class time on student-centered strategies compared to respondents that did not participate in the workshops or use the website. They were also able to show that no matter what faculty member classification (e.g. education-focused or research-focused) those that attended a workshop or used the website were more likely to use student-centered strategies than those that did not.3

The conclusions drawn in this study are important for both faculty and healthcare practitioners that precept students. While keeping up with the most up-to-date information in your content area/discipline is necessary, it is also important to know how to engage students with the material. Most healthcare professionals have not had formal courses on how to be a teacher or faculty member, so engaging in workshops and seminars on how to bring innovative teaching skills to the classroom is especially important. For faculty who exclusively use traditional methods, are they lifelong learners? Are they seeking opportunities to learn new things about teaching?  This study highlights that even experts in a field can gain for continuing education experiences related to teaching strategies and class organization. As part of the self-evaluation that accompanies lifelong learning, I believe finding and using programs like the On the Cutting Edge should be part of the teachers’ repertoire to continually strive to be a better teacher. Only by reassessing current practices and seeking out new ideas can the best educational opportunities be created.


  1. SERC. About the On the Cutting Edge Program. (SERC, 2018); available from: 
  2. SERC. Overall Philosophy of Cutting Edge Workshop Design. (SERC, 2016); available from: 
  3. Manduca CA, Iverson ER, Luxenberg M, et al. Improving undergraduate STEM education: The efficacy of discipline-based professional development. Sci. Adv. 2017;3: e1600193.  Available at: