April 28, 2021

Adapting to Adaptive Learning Technology

by Endya L. Young, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

While humans tend to be alike in more ways than not, we are also very different. We differ in the ways we think, feel, and act. And we differ in the ways we learn. Students each have their own learning style, strengths, and weaknesses that do not always align with a “one size fits all” approach. What if there was a technology to meet the different needs of students? What if this technology had the potential to foster self-directed learning skills? Such a technology would be a great addition to health professions curricula in combination with other teaching methods. This technology exists today!  Although it is fairly new, the technology has the potential to provide some significant benefits to students in the long run.

What is adaptive learning technology (ALT)? It is computer-based software that provides a personalized learning experience based on how the student performs.1 It allows the student’s learning experience to be navigated in a way that fits the student’s needs and increases the likelihood that the student will be successful.2 How does this work? ALT modifies the student’s learning materials in real-time based on their interaction with the program.3 Based on the student’s responses, ALT identifies the student’s strengths and address weaknesses and then adjusts the instructional materials, changes the pace, modifies the assessments, or provides feedback specific to the learner’s needs. ALT provides an efficient and flexible way to remediate learners who have not yet mastered a lesson while presenting new information to those who have.4

The number of studies on the effectiveness of adaptive learning technologies in pharmacy curricula is limited, but I believe it could be of significant benefit to students.  Using adaptive learning technology would prompt students to further develop their self-directed learning and their independence when learning — skills they need after they graduate. It has the potential to reduce gaps in learning and help to identify students who may be struggling.4 Use of this technology in pharmacy schools seems promising because of the need to retain the foundational knowledge while acquiring new information from the ever-evolving, ever-changing world of healthcare.

A recent study analyzed changes in self-directed learning when adaptive learning technology was used. This study enrolled first-year pharmacy students who were completing a two-semester Pharmacists’ Patient Care Process (PPCP) course series.3 In the first semester of this course, professors used active learning during traditional lectures, for example requiring students to complete pre-readings and reflections on course content followed by in-class quizzes.3 Adaptive learning technology was then used during the second semester of the course. Students were required to complete midterm and final examinations in both semesters. Surveys were completed by the students to assess the following: assignment management, stress management, procrastination management, seminar (lecture) learning proficiency, comprehension competence, examination management, and time management.3 To measure the students’ experiences and perceptions of ALT, focus groups were also used to gather additional feedback. The investigators report that students appreciated the additional practice and assessments that ALT provided. The study also concluded that using ALT freed up time during class for the instructors and students to engage in more active learning activities.

The themes identified from the student focus groups in this study convinced me that adaptive learning technology is something that should be incorporated into the pharmacy curriculum. The first theme was student learning preferences. Students overall found the assessments in ALT to be helpful, but also stated that the use of this technology made it more difficult to study for examinations.3 The students in this group stated that they would have liked to have some sort of guide such as PowerPoint slides to aid them in identifying the most pertinent information. The second theme mentioned was teaching methods. Students liked the mix of the teaching methods used, such as pre-class activities, mini-lectures to highlight key points in the learning material, and in-class activities to reinforce their learning.3 It is important to note that some students did not engage with ALT as they should have, often only answering the assessment questions and bypassing course material.  This is important because another study that used ALT in a physics course at a South African University found that students who spent more time engaging with the program performed better on examinations.5 The third theme was valued. Students seemed to benefit more from hearing their professor’s insight on the material being taught and helped them to apply concepts as they progressed. The fourth theme was technology and the challenges the students encountered with its use.

Although the findings in this particular study showed that the use of ALT was not favored by most students, I think that some of the student’s concerns are due to a lack of familiarity. Their desire to be given notes and the fact that many students struggled with procrastination and time management makes me think they oppose ALT simply because it is not something they have used before and have not yet developed the skills to be self-directed learners. Students may have had difficulties because they the lack skills needed to discern important information on their own.3 They preferred to have all of the information provided to them and to have the teacher point out what is important during class. Some students also did not engage with the ALT as they should have, often prioritized other classes. Using a combination of in-class active learning activities with ALT in between class sessions, in my opinion, gives the students the opportunity to learn from and engage with the professor but also develop life-long learning skills.  This will require some major adjustments for student students (and instructors!). Such a major change should be introduced gradually. Overall, I believe ALT has great potential – helping students who have not yet mastered the material a personalized experience while simultaneously promoting the development of self-directed learning skills. 


  1. Forsyth B, Kimble C, Birch J, Deel G, Brauer T. Maximizing the Adaptive Learning Technology Experience. Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice [Internet]. 2016;16(4):80-88.
  2. Liu M, Kang J, Zou W, Lee H, Pan Z, Corliss S. Using Data to Understand How to Better Design Adaptive Learning. Technology, Knowledge and Learning. 2017;22(3):271–98. 
  3. Toth J, Rosenthal M, Pate K. Use of Adaptive Learning Technology to Promote Self-Directed Learning in a Pharmacists’ Patient Care Process Course. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education [Internet]. 2020;85(1): Article 7971.
  4. Moskal P, Carter D, Johnson D. 7 Things You Should Know About Adaptive Learning [Internet]. EDUCASE 2017.
  5. Basitere M, Ivala E. Evaluation of an adaptive learning technology in a first-year extended curriculum programme physics course. South African Computer Journal; 2017; 29 (3):1-15.

April 21, 2021

The Role of Peer Instruction in Health Professions Education

by Whitley Tassin, MBS, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi Medical Center

Instructors are always looking for methods to improve student participation and engage learners in the classroom. Multiple methods have been proposed including pop quizzes, audience response systems, small group discussion, group work, case vignettes, and more. But what is the evidence to support these methods and what are the best methods to engage learners? In recent years, peer instruction has gained increasing support and has become widely used in undergraduate education in an effort to not only engage students but, most importantly, improve learning.1 Multiple methods of peer instruction have been developed and there are subtle differences between each of these methods.  Table 1 below describes the different peer instruction methods.

Table 1: Types of Peer Instruction1



Peer Teaching

Learners with similar levels of expertise and from comparable social groups (but who are not professional teachers) assist each other to learn and learn by teaching

Peer Modeling

The teacher provides (or points out) a competent exemplar(s) by a learner(s) in the group with the purpose that others will emulate these examples

Peer Education

Learners share information and talk about attitudes or behaviors with the goal of educating people, clarifying general life problems, and identifying solutions

Peer Monitoring

Learners observing and checking to determine if their partners/peers are engaged in appropriate and effective processes for learning and studying

Peer Assessment

Learners provide feedback or score/grade (or both) their peers’ performance based on a set criteria


While these tactics have been employed across various disciplines, few have been studied in pharmacy education. However, the literature consistently points to the positive impact that peer instruction has had on improving learning outcomes.

One study at Cedarville University looked at the effect of peer instruction in a self-care course within a Doctor of Pharmacy program.2 Peer instruction was employed for seven topics: constipation and anorectal disorders; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; allergies; cough and cold; fungal and wounds; ophthalmic, otic, and oral; and dermatitis and sun care. Students were asked to prepare for each topic before class in anticipation of a “quiz” given on each topic. They were paired with a peer to discuss each topic after the quiz. If the average was above 70%, this indicated that most students had a good understanding of the concept, and discussion was not needed. When a score fell below 30%, this indicated that most students did understand of the topic, and the instructor provided additional instruction about the concept. If the score was between 30% and 70%, students would then engage in a discussion about their answers.  Students were instructed to justify their answers to their peers. Following this brief period of peer instruction, the questions were again presented to the class and scored. Results showed that scores improved significantly for each topic when peer instruction was implemented. In addition, students were asked to voluntarily complete a survey about their opinions and experiences with peer instruction. More than 80% of students responded to the survey and the results suggested that students felt very positive about peer instruction. Students reported that defending their thoughts was beneficial and that peer instruction reduced the awkwardness and “embarrassment” of approaching a professor with a question. They also reported that they enjoyed discussing concepts with their classmates and that they would like to see this technique used more frequently and in other courses.

Another study at the University of California San Francisco looked at the effectiveness of peer instruction in a pharmacology course taught by pharmacy students to physical therapy students.3 Physical therapy students were instructed to review pre-recorded lectures prior to attending class and take quizzes on the material. Under the mentorship of a faculty member, all lectures, quizzes, cases, and final assessments were developed by pharmacy students. In-class sessions consisted of working in small groups and then presenting what was discussed to the larger group. Pharmacy students served as teaching assistants and were present to answer questions and facilitate discussion. When surveyed at the end of the course, physical therapy students reported that they felt that learning about other healthcare professions from someone outside of their discipline was beneficial and it increased their comfort interacting with other members of the healthcare team. This demonstrates that peer instruction improves student’s learning and can also be a potential tool to increase interprofessional interaction.

What are some best practices that faculty should follow if they wish to use peer instruction in their classes? A recently published scoping review sought to determine the best methods for peer instruction, identify barriers to implementation, and student perceptions of peer instruction in pharmacy education.1 The results suggested there was a positive impact on learning and feedback from students was positive regardless of what type of peer instruction was used. Using both quantitative and qualitative survey methods, students in the included studies reported that participating in peer instruction would likely result in a higher grade and they are open to using this learning method more often. Students also reported that peer instruction challenged them to think critically, defend answer choices, and discuss aspects of the topic they might not have otherwise considered.1,2

While peer instruction has several potential benefits, faculty should be aware of the potential barriers when implementing this teaching strategy. It is important to train peers instructors and reviewers. If the peer instructor doesn’t have a good understanding of the topic, this can lead to misinformation and would obviously negatively impact student learning. In addition, when peer assessment is used, the students giving feedback must have very clear guidelines or rubrics that should be used when delivering feedback. Peer reviewers should receive training not only on the appropriate use of the rubric but also on how to effectively deliver constructive feedback. Thus, students who are actively teaching or leading any portion of peer instruction must receive proper training in order for the program to succeed.1  This requires the teacher to spend an adequate amount of time and energy developing train-the-trainer materials.

Overall, the results of numerous studies demonstrate that peer instruction can have many beneficial effects. Implementing peer instruction throughout the curriculum can increase student engagement, improve learning outcomes, and build important critical thinking skills.


  1. Aburahma M, Mohamed H. Peer Teaching as an Educational Tool in Pharmacy Schools; Fruitful or Futile. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning [Internet]. 2017; 9(6): 1170-1179.
  2. Straw A, Wicker E, Harper N. Effect of Peer Instruction Pedagogy on Concept Mastery in a First Professional Year Pharmacy Self-Care Course. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning [Internet]. 2021; 13(3): 273-278.
  3. Hsia S, Tran D, Beechinor R, et al. Interprofessional Peer Teaching: The Value of a Pharmacy Student-led Pharmacology Course for Physical Therapy Students. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning [Internet]. 2020; 12(10): 1252-1257.

April 6, 2021

Accelerated Curriculums: Potential Benefits … and Harms

by Brett Lambert, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, North Mississippi Medical Center

For those looking to pursue a career in pharmacy or other health professions, the decision as to which school to attend is often based on a few key factors. Important factors applicants typically assess include the duration of the program, the passage rates on licensure exams, the quality of the education, the benefit to their career, and the memories that can be made with peers or the quality of the social life. Some colleges/schools offering an accelerated program and prospective students are left to consider the benefits of completing their desired curriculum faster than normal. It is therefore important to consider the potential benefits (and harms) of completing an accelerated curriculum.

Accelerated programs provide an opportunity for students to complete their preferred professional program in a shorter period of time than a normal curriculum length. For pharmacy schools, this means students complete their doctoral degree in three years rather than the usual four years. To accomplish the same curriculum in 3 years, accelerate program conduct classes year-round without end of semester breaks like summer or winter break. According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, as of July 2020, there are a total of 142 colleges or schools of pharmacy.1 Of these schools, there are at least fifteen programs that offer an accelerated Pharm.D. curriculum.

One way to determine if accelerated programs are as good or, perhaps, superior to traditional programs is to compare pass rates on the licensure exam.  In pharmacy, the NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination) is required to become a pharmacist.  The NAPLEX first attempt passage rates from the past three years (2017,2018, and 2019) for the fifteen accelerate programs were substantially lower than the national average passage rate. Using data reported by the National Association of Board of Pharmacy,2 accelerated programs averaged a passage rate that was 3-5% lower than the average national passage rate.

While this data is not a full analysis of the data available, it does provide some insight as to how these programs compare to the traditional four-year programs. However, the length of the curriculum is but one factor and there are other factors that could affect NAPLEX pass rates. One of which is the age (or maturity) of the program. In a recent survey that examined pharmacy school characteristics and their first-time NAPLEX pass rates, pharmacy schools established before 2000 had significantly higher first attempt pass rates on the NAPLEX than those established after.3 Thus historic (or more mature) programs seem to produce students better prepared to pass the NAPLEX on the first attempt. The authors also reported that between 2015 and 2016 when the NAPLEX testing structure was changed, a smaller percentage of four-year programs experienced a 10% or greater decrease in first-time pass rates than three-year accelerated programs (c2=5.54, p=.02).3 The pass rate dropped from 92.5 to 86.6 among traditional four-year programs and from 90.2 to 80.4 in three-year accelerated programs.  This difference was significant.3

Another study compared the length of advanced pharmacy practice experiences (APPE) to determine the correlation with first-time pass rates. The lengths of the APPEs included four, five, or six-week blocks.4 However, the results provide no evidence that APPE rotation length correlated with a higher first attempt pass rate for the NAPLEX. This would argue that the length of clinical rotations does not affect a student’s ability to pass the NAPLEX.

One metric that some programs use to boast about the quality of graduates they produce is the number of students that match with PGY-1 and PGY-2 residency programs. According to the National Matching Service, the official matching program for PGY-1 and PGY-2’s, in 2020 there was a total of 7535 students who registered for the match and 3904 who matched; which is a 51.8% match rate for all programs. The 15 three-year programs had a match rate of 39.7% compared to a 53.1% match rate for four-year pharmacy programs.6

Another difference between programs of different lengths that is more difficult to quantify is the impact an accelerated curriculum might have on a student’s social life. A curriculum that completely consumes a student’s life and does not allow enough time to get involved in professional or social organizations, maintain hobbies, or spend time with family reduces opportunities for a healthy social life. These barriers to social and professional development could affect the student’s interactions with patients, peers, or co-workers.

Given the potentially negative consequences of accelerated curriculum, why would any student consider applying to or attending such a program? The most obvious benefit is that by graduating a year early the student enters practice a year sooner – which translates in an extra year of work, an extra year of practical experience as a pharmacist, and can lead to an improved financial situation in both the short and long-term. However, there is no promise of a better job, career, or future opportunities.

The debate about accelerated professional programs is not unique to pharmacy — the medical professional is now deliberating the merits of accelerated medical school programs. Recently, there have been medical school programs that are reviving a three-year program structure. These three-year accelerated programs originated during WWII when there was a shortage of physicians.5 Once the war was over, the students who graduated from the accelerated programs felt the need for more courses.5 Which suggests that graduates from these accelerated programs didn’t feel fully prepared despite the fact that they received on-the-job experience. Surprisingly, these three-year programs were not discontinued due to lower pass rates of the USMLE (the United States Medical Licensing Examination) compared to those of four-year programs. Indeed, there are no differences between the pass rates based on program length.5

It seems to me that when designing a program and teaching students, there needs to be time for the information to sink in. The literature suggests that out-of-class learning, including extra-curricular activities, can be very beneficial to one's career. This includes building leadership skills through service in professional organizations and developing social skills.  Students also need time to think deeply about the material covered in class. There are many factors that influence licensure pass rates, but I don’t think we know yet the key ingredients to creating a shorter curriculum that is equally effective.


  1. Academic Pharmacy's Vital Statistics. American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. Published July 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
  2. North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination Passing Rates for 2017—2019 Graduates Per Pharmacy School. National Association of Board of Pharmacy. Published February 25, 2020. Accessed February 20, 2021.
  3. Williams JS, Spivey CA, Hagemann TM, Phelps SJ, Chisholm-Burns M. Impact of Pharmacy School Characteristics on NAPLEX First-time Pass Rates. Am J Pharm Educ. 2019;83(6):Article 6875.
  4. Ried LD. Length of advanced pharmacy practice experience and first-time NAPLEX pass rate of US pharmacy programs. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2020;12(1):14-19.
  5. Schwartz CC, Ajjarapu AS, Stamy CD, Schwinn DA. Comprehensive history of 3-year and accelerated US medical school programs: a century in review. Med Educ Online. 2018;23(1):1530557
  6. NUMBER OF APPLICANTS APPLYING FOR PGY1 PROGRAMS BY SCHOOL 2020 MATCH – COMBINED PHASE I AND PHASE II. National Matching Services. Published 2020. Accessed April 1, 2021.