May 23, 2022

"Blended Learning” Models and Their Effectiveness

by Hannah Black, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Baptist Memorial Health-North Mississippi

Many of us are familiar with the term, “blended learning.” While it is easy to assume that this teaching model simply involves a combination of in-class and online instruction, there are lots of different ways of accomplishing it. Although blended learning models are now commonplace (thank you COVID-19), there has been a lot of research published in medical education journals over the last 4 decades.1 Many studies have documented the effectiveness of blended learning in health professions education but given that blended learning methods vary very substantially, what strategies are most effective?

The Journal of Medical Internet Research published a systematic review and meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of blended learning compared to traditional learning in health professions education.1 Blended learning was stratified into different types of learning support, defined as follows:

  • Offline Learning - the use of personal computers to assist in delivering stand-alone multimedia materials without the need for internet.
    • Videos and audio-visual learning materials (as long as the learning activities did not rely on internet connection)
  • Online Support – all online materials used in learning courses.
    • Educational platforms (learning management system, LMS like Blackboard)
  • Digital Education – a wide range of teaching and learning strategies exclusively based on the use of electronic media and devices
    • Facilitates remote learning for training purposes
  • Computer-Assisted Instruction – the use of audio-visual material to augment instruction.
    • Multimedia presentations, live synchronous virtual sessions via a web-based learning platform, synchronous or asynchronous discussion forums
  • Virtual Patients – interactive computers simulations of real-life clinical scenarios

The primary outcome of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of blended learning to achieve knowledge outcomes compared with traditional teaching strategies.1 Of the 3,389 articles identified in MEDLINE, 56 studies met the inclusion criteria with a total of 9,943 participants. Most of the participants were students in medical schools. Other participant subgroups included nursing, pharmacy, physiotherapy, dentistry, and interprofessional education.

Offline Blended Learning vs Traditional Learning

Some benefits of offline learning have been suggested, such as unrestricted knowledge transfer and enhanced accessibility. This type of learning gives students more flexibility to learn at a convenient pace, place, and time, which can improve retention of content. However, this study showed no significant difference in knowledge outcomes when compared to traditional teaching methods. It was noted that the majority of studies in this group were in nursing. These results were consistent with a previous meta-analysis on offline digital instruction.2

Online Blended Learning vs Traditional Learning

Online blended learning gives students more experience building competency in things that require repeated practice, such as EKG and imaging interpretation. The internet has provided students with an abundance of resources that can be used with the click of a button, so why not use it to the learner’s advantage? As expected, this study did show a significant advantage in knowledge outcomes of online blended learning versus traditional learning alone. Using the internet to deliver instruction does not come without challenges. Learning is highly dependent on the student’s ability to cope with technical difficulties and comfort using computers and navigating the internet.

Digital Learning vs Traditional Learning

Digital learning, or “eLearning,” is being used increasingly in health professional education for improvement of access to training and communication.3 However, the pooled effect for knowledge outcomes in this study suggests no significant difference.1 This study was broken into subgroups, and the medicine subgroup showed digital learning had a positive effect when compared to the control group.1 I feel this concept is not one to ignore because it facilitates remote learning, which could help in addressing the shortage of health professionals in settings with limited resources.1

Computer-Assisted Instruction Blended Learning vs Traditional Learning

Computer-assisted instruction can provide students with innovative methods of instruction for things like physical examination techniques.8 The pooled effect for knowledge outcomes in this study suggested a significant improvement. Participants in one study reported difficulties accessing the course due to problems with the university’s internet, so the online discussion board was not used to its full potential.5 One could argue that similar problems could have emerged even in the traditional learning setting where students may choose not to or feel intimidated to engage in discussion. 

Virtual Patient Blended Learning vs Traditional Learning

Virtual patients are widely used in simulation-based instruction. These simulations can be used as a precursor to bedside learning, or to be used when direct patient contact is not possible. The groups with supplementary virtual patient learning support showed a significant improvement in knowledge outcomes compared to traditional learning.1 These results reinforce the results found in a similar meta-analysis, showing that virtual patients have a positive impact in terms of skill development and problem solving.3

When combining all 56 studies, the pooled effect size reflected a significantly positive effect on knowledge acquisition in favor of blended learning versus traditional learning in health professions education.1 A possible explanation could be that blended learning allows students to review materials at their own pace and as often as necessary. This reinforces the belief that the outcomes of blended learning is most dependent on student characteristics and motivation, rather than the instructional deliver method.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting findings from this study comes from the subgroup analysis. For the top 3 subgroups, the pooled effect difference in the medicine subgroup was 0.91, nursing studies was 0.75, and dentistry studies was 0.35.1 This reiterates that the effectiveness of blended learning is complex and dependent on the learner characteristics and needs of the student population. One tool that can be used to develop and implement a personalized blended learning curriculum is the six step Kern cycle6, described below:

  1. Problem identification – The first step begins with the identification and analysis of a specific healthcare need or group of needs. It could relate to the needs of the provider, or the needs of society in general.
  2. Targeted needs assessment – The second step involves assessing the needs of your group of health professional students, which may differ from the needs of providers or society in general.
  3. Formulating goals and learning objectives – Once the needs have been clearly identified, goals and objectives should be written starting with broad goals, then moving to specific, measurable objectives.
  4. Selecting educational strategies – After objectives have been finalized, the content and methods can be selected that will help to achieve the educational objectives.
  5. Implementation – In this step the finalized curriculum is implemented.
  6. Evaluation and feedback – This final step is important to help continuously improve the curriculum and gain support to drive the ongoing learning of participants.

 Overall, this meta-analysis reinforces the notion that blended learning has a positive effect on knowledge outcomes in healthcare education. However, it also indicates that different methods of conducting blended courses could demonstrate differing effectiveness based on the student population, their needs, and the learning objectives.1 When strategically developed and implemented, I believe blended learning enhances outcomes.


  1. Vallée A, Blacher J, Cariou A, Sorbets E. Blended learning compared to traditional learning in medical education: Systematic Review and meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2020;22(8): e16504.
  2. Posadzki P, Bala MM, Kyaw BM, et al. Offline Digital Education for Postregistration Health Professions: Systematic review and meta-analysis by the Digital Health Education Collaboration. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2019;21(4): e20316.
  3. Kononowicz AA, Woodham LA, Edelbring S, et al. Virtual patient simulations in Health Professions Education: Systematic Review and meta-analysis by the Digital Health Education Collaboration. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2019;21(7): e14676.
  4. Song L, Singleton ES, Hill JR, Koh MH. Improving online learning: Student perceptions of useful and challenging characteristics. The Internet and Higher Education. 2004;7(1):59–70.
  5. Al-Riyami S, Moles DR, Leeson R, Cunningham SJ. Comparison of the instructional efficacy of an internet-based temporomandibular joint (TMJ) tutorial with a traditional seminar. British Dental Journal. 2010;209(11):571–6.
  6. Kern D. Curriculum Development for Medical Education: A Six-step Approach. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.
  7. George PP, Papachristou N, Belisario JM, et al. Online elearning for undergraduates in Health Professions: A systematic review of the impact on knowledge, skills, attitudes and satisfaction. Journal of Global Health. 2014;4(1).
  8. Tomesko J, Touger-Decker R, Dreker M, Zelig R, Parrott JS. The effectiveness of computer-assisted instruction to teach physical examination to students and trainees in the Health Sciences Professions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development. 2017 Jul 14;4:2382120517720428

May 4, 2022

Portraying Social Constructs that Influence Health in Patient Cases

by Jewlyus Grigsby PharmD, PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

One of the most common ways health profession programs assess students’ knowledge is through patient cases intended to mirror real-life practice scenarios. These cases are meant to place students in a “what would you do?” simulation and facilitate the development of their critical thinking and clinical skills. These cases are used during in-class discussions, on exams, in clinical skills competitions, in interviews, and for professional development. When designing these cases, faculty consider a variety of factors such as the severity of the patient’s symptoms, lab values, comorbidities, allergies and intolerances, and even family history. One set of factors that must be carefully considered when creating a case is the patient’s race, ethnicity, nationality, and socioeconomic status. These factors are social constructs, and therefore influence perception, decision making, and (all too often) health outcomes. In August 2021, the American Medical Association published updated guidelines about how to report race and ethnicity in the medical literature. These guidelines state that the words and terms used must be, “accurate, clear, and precise and must reflect fairness, equity, and consistency.”1 Furthermore it also provides guidance on how to address sex and gender, sexual orientation, age, and socioeconomic status in research reports, review articles, and case reports. The goal of these guidelines is to reduce unintentional bias within the medical and scientific literature. However, despite now having a guideline instructing health care researchers and educators on how best to include these social constructs, how should this be done in the classroom setting and during experiential courses?

Ensuring the appropriate portrayal of diversity in patient cases should start with a careful reflection on the objectives of the lecture or topic being taught. This is especially important because test questions are often developed from the learning objectives. When writing learning objectives, one must ask what participants should be able to do as a result of the lecture, what the audience needs to know, and communicate the take-home message. By including objectives that relate to the social determinants of health, diversity can be introduced into the patient cases, and assist students in practicing disease state management with patients from diverse backgrounds. Here are three examples of how to structure objectives that include some of these social factors:

  1. Create a treatment plan for patients within the confines of the state’s Medicaid medication formulary.
  2. Design a medication regimen that accounts for and is consistent with a patient’s religious beliefs and practices.
  3. Compare and contrast the prevalence of medication allergies and intolerances present in specific racial and ethnic groups.

These objectives challenge students to analyze a patient’s financial status, religious beliefs, and race/ethnicity in the context of the treatment regimen and medication characteristics.

After establishing the objectives for a presentation and determining whether specific social factors should be incorporated, the next step is to design the cases that will be used during the in-class activities and on exams. The cases should highlight the medical conditions under consideration but also highlight how political, economic, and social factors contribute to the patient’s o vernal health outcomes. It is also important to ensure the case does not reinforce biases and avoids stereotypes. This can be challenging because there is a fine line between something that might be more common in a particular population and a stereotypical patient presentation. For example, psoriasis is more common in Caucasian patients and diabetes is more common in African Americans. However, not all diabetes-related cases should be about an African American patient, and not all psoriasis cases should feature a Northern European! These diseases occur in people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but there may be some differences in presentation, clinical features, and severity that can be explored by featuring patients from various backgrounds.

One group, a non-profit organization, produces cases for courses in medical schools in the United States. They design their cases using an approach called “structural competency” defined as: 

the trained ability to discern how a host of issues defined clinically as symptoms, attitudes, or diseases also represent the downstream implications of a number of upstream decisions about such matters as health care and food delivery systems, zoning laws, urban and rural infrastructures, medicalization, or even about the very definitions of illness and health.2

Based on this definition, the group produced a guide to assist educators in the implementation of the cases and how to discuss race and culture in the classroom.2

Using our learning objectives above, we could construct a patient case to explore a range of issues.  Here is an example of a patient case that a teacher might create:

RS is a 30 YO bisexual African American male with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. He is coming to clinic for the first time since being hospitalized due to diabetic ketoacidosis. His diabetes is uncontrolled and he probably doesn’t have health insurance. His family history includes type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart failure. He states that he drinks very little water and because he works all the time in a factory, he eats a typical Southern diet: high calorie and high carbohydrates with little to no vegetables. What medication regimen would you recommend in this case? What are some non-pharmacological interventions would you suggest?

This is a suitable case to evaluate a patient newly diagnosed with diabetes however, it does perpetuate stereotypes and can reinforce some implicit biases that many practitioners have. First, in the introductory sentence, it states the patient’s sexual orientation. This information really isn’t necessary to answer the key questions. Nonetheless, patients sometimes disclose personal information during a clinic visit or hospital stay. Although it does not contribute information that is useful when addressing the key questions in the case, it might be an opportunity to introduce students to a patient whose sexual orientation may be different than their own. However, the manner in which the patient’s sexual orientation is included doesn’t flow with the narrative of the case. Also, the case alludes to the possibility that this patient is uninsured, but based on the objectives, we should indicate that the patient is on Medicaid. Lastly, the patient’s diet is described in a stereotypical manner. Instead of labeling this a "southern diet" that all African Americans in the south consume, it would be better to describe the patient’s diet without ascribing it to the patient’s race or ethnicity. So here’s a way to change the case without perpetuating these biases and stereotypes:

RS is a 30 YO African American male with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. He is coming to the clinic for the first time after being hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis. He has trouble getting his medications because his Medicaid plan’s limited formulary and normally his boyfriend helps him pay for his medications. His family history includes type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart failure. When ask about what he has eaten over the past 24-hours, he indicates he did not eat breakfast, he ate a chicken sandwich meal from Chick fil A for lunch, and had fried chicken with bread for dinner. What medication regimen would you recommend in this case? What are some non-pharmacological interventions you would suggest?

The new case removes the patient’s sexual orientation from the introductory statement but its still alluded to it later in the case.  The case introduces access to medications as a potential problem. Also, there is specific information about the patient’s eating habits, rather than sweeping generalizations. These changes do not alter the case entirely, but they do remove some of the stereotypical elements and biases. In order to introduce students to the social determinants of health, social constructs need to be included in patient cases but must be constructed in such a way to reduce biases while reflecting the diversity in the patients we serve.


  1. Flanagin, A., Frey, T. and Christiansen, S., 2021. Updated Guidance on the Reporting of Race and Ethnicity in Medical and Science Journals. JAMA 2021; 326(7): 621. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2022].
  2. Krishnan A, Rabinowitz M, Ziminsky A, Scott S, and Chretien K. Addressing Race, Culture, and Structural Inequality in Medical EducationAcademic Medicine 2019; 94(4): 550-555.