February 23, 2023

Does Working in Groups Result in Higher Academic Performance?

by Joshua Chang, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Magnolia Regional Health Center

Students often face different study environments and styles when preparing for exams. The debate regarding the benefits of group studying compared to studying alone remains an ongoing discussion.  Which ensures students achieve optimum learning (and exam scores)? From personal experience, studying in groups has several advantages, including retention of information, opportunities to clarify ambiguous topics, and teaching others while simultaneously solidifying one’s knowledge.  Collaborating in groups can be constructive when students are assigned a rigorous assignment that requires critical thinking and planning to execute it efficiently.

Unfortunately, working in groups has several pitfalls, such as the difficulty in arranging times for the group to gather.  This is especially true when group members are heavily involved with organizations, work, and family obligations. The number of participants in the group also is a factor. As the number of students in a group increases, distractions (such as mobile devices) and engaging in side conversations can hinder progress.  Research sheds some light on when individual vs. group study might work best.

In 2015 qualitative study performed at five Universities in Pakistan, the investigators conducted group interviews using a semi-structured questionnaire.  They found that approximately 30% of the students leaned towards individual study. This group of students emphasized that individual study allows them to remain in focus, achieving maximum concentration, which strengthens their confidence to solve difficult assignments and be less dependent on others. Additionally, these students believed that group study was too time-consuming and would only do group study when directed by the instructor. The second group, which consisted of 10% of the student population, preferred group study. They believed that it allowed them to share their knowledge, express their thought process, and assist each other when completing difficult assignments. The most important factor for favoring group study was the increase in motivation to study and the assistance that weaker students gained when working in groups.1

Interestingly, the largest population of students (60%) took advantage of both styles of study. They asserted that both are equally important for enhancing their learning. They state that every member of the group possesses a different perception and view on the material and group study facilitates the sharing of different ideas.  On the other hand, individual study allows for fewer distractions and the freedom to plan one’s study session. Students in this study emphasized that a group size of no more than 5 students was key to effective group work. An excessive number of members limits the opportunity for students to speak, participate, and contribute frequently.  It is important to take into consideration that this study was conducted at five different Universities with varying curricula – but they were not structured to promote either individual study or group study.1

In a 2014 case study that focused a Collaborative Learning Environment among 122 university students enrolled in an Engineering and Molecular Biology program explored group work versus individual work. The study recorded each student’s performance for 3 different course assignments over one semester. The study utilized a software called Moodle that allowed for file sharing and synchronous group work.  Using this technology, the instructors were able to monitor each student’s actions in real-time. Each individual student’s work was color-coded to differentiate participation and involvement as they completed assignments.2

The study highlighted various models of collaboration that played a vital role in each group’s progress. Some groups engaged in real-time collaboration, having their members work simultaneously alongside one another from start to end, while other groups utilized a self-paced model, having their members work individually at their leisure. The frequency of contribution was a key factor. Some students only contributed once, while other students would review their colleague’s work, improving and editing the composition. Another factor was the effort and quality of work. Groups that were dominated by one student had performance scores ranging from 55% to 100%. The wide gap in scores for these groups is likely attributable to the quality of work from that single member.  Groups with 4 to 6 members that divided the work but had low-level contributions generally had a narrower span of scores - from 70% to 90%.  However, the study did not report data regarding large groups with higher-contributing work to have an appropriate comparison.2

One important aspect that the study focused on was assessing each student’s individual performance and using that score to predict an expected group performance score. They found that the group performance score, on average, was much higher than the predicted group score and higher than the mean individual performance scores. The study was not able to study groups larger than 5 students and the three assignments used for analysis were not explicitly open for review. The type of subject, level of difficulty, familiarity, and time commitment needed for the assignments are unknown. Overall, the study asserts that the defining factor for higher performance is not merely the size of a group but the level of contribution.2

There are advantages and disadvantages to both group and individual study. Although we may think that study habits are binary, research shows that both strategies can be beneficial, and academic performance may be related to one’s preferences. In my opinion, specific assignments that mimic real-life tasks where a practitioner acts independently should be done individually. Measuring a student’s growth is also more feasible when analyzing individual work. A student may prefer studying and working alone but being in a group offers several benefits and can also be useful for mimicking those real-world tasks done by groups of people.

References:

  1. Kandhro, S. (2015). Impact of Group-Study and Self-Study on Learning Abilities of Students at the University Level. Case Studies Journal 2015; 4(2).
  2. Cen L, Ruta D, Powell L, and Ng J. Learning alone or in a group — an empirical case study of the collaborative learning patterns and their impact on student grades. 2014 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL).

February 21, 2023

Do NAPLEX or MPJE Preparatory Courses Improve Pass Rates?

by Jacey Gossett, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi

As a recent pharmacy school graduate, I took the National Pharmacy Licensure Exam (NAPLEX) and the Multi-state Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE). A hot topic of conversation among my classmates is the pass rates on these exams.  Being a “good” student who earned A’s and B’s throughout pharmacy school, I expected the NAPLEX to be something that I would be able to easily pass — boy, was I wrong! To my, my friends, and my family’s surprise, I received a “FAIL” on my first NAPLEX attempt. The word FAIL staring me in the face that day last June was a major kick in the gut. Since I passed my MPJE shortly after graduation in May, I thought the NAPLEX would be a similar outcome. Luckily, in July, I received a “PASS” on my second NAPLEX attempt.

It was shocking to me, but I was not the only one from my graduating class that had to retake the NAPLEX.  How in the world had we made our way through pharmacy school just to receive a big fat “FAIL” when taking our boards? Our school and the professors certainly did everything they could to push us toward success on our boards. We had a year-long NAPLEX prep course that ran concurrently with our advanced pharmacy practice experiences (APPE).  We were given various assignments to “ensure” that we were preparing ourselves for these challenging exams. We had multiple practice exams to give us experience. In December of my P4 year, I scored 69 on my first practice NAPLEX. Although this is not a “passing” score, I felt I was on the right track as I was just getting deeper into my studying. In the spring of my P4 year, I took another practice exam and brought my score up to 73.  I was improving but I recognized that had more studying to do.

There have been multiple studies published in recent years examining factors that might help students be successful on their board exams. One cross-sectional study sought to describe the characteristics of NAPLEX preparation programs currently offered by schools of pharmacy and the correlation between program characteristics and first-attempt pass rates. Fifty-eight Pharm D programs completed an online survey about their NAPLEX preparation programs. A majority (86%) of schools indicated they offered a NAPLEX prep program. But offering a NAPLEX prep program was not associated with higher first-attempt pass rates. Some concerns raised by the authors of the paper included student workload (e.g., balancing the demands of a prep program during APPEs) and the faculty workload associated with delivering these programs.1

In a retrospective study, investigators compared NAPLEX scores (n=150) to several factors that might predict performance. The investigators found that the NAPLEX score was most strongly correlated with pharmacy GPA (r=0.66) and Pre-NAPLEX score (r=0.45) but also race/ethnicity, Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) composite score and section scores, undergraduate GPA, undergraduate science GPA, and on-time graduation.2

In another retrospective study, the correlation between preparatory testing and other factors were compared to performance on the MPJE. This analysis showed that the Pre-MPJE scores failed to predict whether a student would pass the MPJE but a student’s performance in the pharmacy law course did.3

As you can see from the results of these studies, there is no clear correlation between prep courses and the odds of passing either the NAPLEX or MPJE. Therefore, simply having such courses available does not ensure success.  Thus, it is truly up to individuals to ensure that they are using prep courses, practice exams, and other resources to fully prepare themselves. It is difficult to find a quick and easy fix to improving first-time pass rates for board exams. There are many “tips and tricks” on the Internet. These “tips and tricks” seem to be consistent with things students have likely heard during pharmacy school – things like having a study plan, taking practice tests, creating self-testing materials, working with a study group, getting plenty of sleep, and not cramming.

Spaced repetition is a study technique that involves reviewing and recalling information at optimal spacing intervals until that information is deeply learned. This technique has students review materials, repeatedly, over a long period of time. Research has clearly shown that spacing out repeated encounters with material over time provides superior long-term retention.  Self-testing coupled with spaced repetition amplifies the benefits.4

As I’ve learned, it’s important to study and prepare for the MPJE and NAPLEX well in advance. I was able to pass my MPJE solely on the material learned during our pharmacy law course and our professor was very clear about how hard and tricky the exam could be. I was able to pass my NAPLEX on the second try by realizing my areas of weakness. I used the same study strategies, but by being more self-aware of my weaknesses I was better prepared for my second attempt. Perhaps the best approach is to help students figure out what they do not know and then encourage them to use effective evidence-based study techniques.

There are several evidence-based learning and studying techniques, like spaced repetition, that can be used to enhance a student’s recall of information, but it is truly up to the student to “take the bull by the horns” and get the studying done. Students need to know very early in their pharmacy school journey just how hard these exams can be.

References

  1. Fiano K, Attarabeen O, Augustine J, et al. Association between Naplex Preparation Program Characteristics and First-Time Pass Rates. Am J Pharm Education 2022; 86(6): Article 8760.
  2. Chisholm-Burns M, Spivey C, Byrd D, McDonough S, Phelps S. Examining the Association between the NAPLEX, Pre-NAPLEX, and Pre- and Post-admission Factors. Am J Pharm Education 2017; 81(5): Article 86.
  3. Havrda D, Hall E, Spivey C, et al. Examining Preparatory Testing and Other Factors Associated With Performance on the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination. Am J Pharm Education 2022; 86(7): Article 8774.
  4. Kang S. Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences(PIBBS) 2016; 3 (1): 12-19.

February 13, 2023

Resilience Training in Healthcare to Meet the Needs of Learners and Practitioners

by Lori Emory, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Mississippi State Department of Health Pharmacy 

Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from challenges — to learn and grow from setbacks. An individual’s resilience is built up over the course of their life and is shaped by their actions taken prior to, during, and after difficult and often stressful situations.1,2  

Stress is a natural response by the body to physical and mental challenges. While stress can be a motivating factor that prompts us to try new things as we face new challenges, too much stress over a prolonged period of time is unhealthy and can lead to anxiety and burnout. Anxiety is an overreaction to stress experienced from performing “ordinary” daily activities which can lead to significant impairment. Burnout is a diminished ability to respond to stressors and can lead to anhedonia and depression.1,3 

In healthcare, providers are responsible for the well-being of numerous patients. Chronic stress – often unavoidable in healthcare – puts health professionals at a higher risk for developing anxiety or burnout, which, in turn, results in less than optimal care and increases the risk of errors and poor patient outcomes.1,3,4 Thus, resilience strategies, often techniques learned from previous stressful situations, help providers meet new challenges.5 


There are conflicting feelings about resiliency training in healthcare.  Some have argued that resiliency training focuses too much on individuals by teaching them how to adapt to and cope with the ever-growing demands of the profession while letting institutions off the hook by failing to address poor working conditions, such as chronic understaffing and addressing hindrances.2,4 While data supporting resilience training programs in healthcare are limited, results show participants generally appreciate learning about the tools they can use to become more resilient and like being part of a community where they can share experiences with fellow health professionals.1,2 

Although self-care has been around for many years, resiliency training was introduced to me as a formal concept while applying for residency. Many residencies now offer resilience training as a required component of their program structure. Given that most pharmacy jobs provide little to no social support for new practitioners, I believe having resiliency training incorporated into the residency experience can be very beneficial. 

Several studies have examined the elements of resiliency training that participants generally believe are needed for it to be most beneficial:  

  1. Focusing on the experience of health professionals and students is vital in a successful program. 1,2,4,5,6  Healthcare workers are exposed to difficult human experiences while working with serious injuries, illnesses, and even death.1,2,4,6 Participants in resiliency training programs discussed the need for training to be guided by another health professional with a shared understanding of the many challenges that come with working in healthcare.1,2,6 
  1. Sharing experiences in a positive and non-judgmental manner builds community among healthcare providers who often feel isolated.1,2  Many providers report feeling isolated and a desire to participate in a community of peer support.1 Program participants reported small group discussions allowed them to recognize their own behaviors better and learn from others’ real-world experiences.1,6 Participants often report preferring voluntary attendance at these sessions as they felt it helped ensure that all participants would come in with an open mind about sharing experiences and learning to grow from difficult situations.2,6  
  1. Following up with participants helps turn new skills into daily practiced habits. While the initial training session(s) were often considered to be helpful by participants, programs that included follow-up reflection, allow participants to expand on the skills they learned and think about how they could use those skills in their daily lives. 1,2,6 
  1. All health professionals can benefit from these types of programs, regardless of their current level of experience. Even students at the beginning of their training are exposed to the difficult realities of a career working in healthcare, and serving people who are experiencing some of the greatest stress in their lives.2,5 Promoting resiliency training programs during early didactic coursework or introductory practice experiences may provide key life-long skills that participants will benefit from long-term as they progress through training and into their professional lives.2,6 Students particularly report benefits from training programs that are structured to provide insight into stressors that they may experience, during their training and in practice.2,3,6  

Offering resiliency training led by experienced faculty members should be considered at all educational institutions that are preparing the next generation of health professionals. Resiliency training programs should be voluntary, such as course electives or extracurricular meetings, where all students can participate without feeling the need to give up other interests. Placing participants in small groups of 8-10 with a mix of learners at various levels and faculty with guided discussion prompts can foster natural mentorships and a sense of community within groups. Providing this kind of support early and often throughout the professional degree program can provide a safe space where genuine conversations can take place. Regularly obtaining feedback from participants is important to tailor these programs to meet the needs of students and faculty based on schedules and topics of interest.  

References: 

  1. Epstein RM, Krasner MS. Physician Resilience: What It Means, Why It Matters, and How to Promote It. Academic Medicine 2013: 88(3):301-303.
  2. Johnson J, Simms-Ellis R, Janes G, et al. Can we prepare healthcare professionals and students for involvement in stressful healthcare events? A mixed-methods evaluation of a resilience training intervention. BMC Health Serv Res 2020; 20: Article number 1094.
  3. Fares J, Al Tabosh H, Stress AH, et al. Burnout and coping strategies in Preclinical Medical Students. N Am J Med Sci 2016; 8 (2):75-81.
  4. Murthy VH. Confronting health worker burnout and well-being. N Eng J Med 2022;387(7):577–9.
  5. Kunzler AM, Helmreich I, K├Ânig J, et al. Psychological interventions to foster resilience in healthcare students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2020, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD013684:7-43.
  6. Bird A, Tomescu O, Oyola S, Houpy J, Anderson I, Pincavage A.A curriculum to teach resilience skills to medical students during clinical training. MedEdPORTAL 2020;16:10975.

February 9, 2023

Teaching Health Professional Students to Manage Patient Bias

by Allison Wadlow, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center

Health disparities based on race have been a long-standing problem in the United States. Much light was shed on this matter in recent years prompted by numerous murders of minorities and the Black Lives Matter advocacy movement. It is well known that racial disparities exist within the healthcare system of this country. Even when patients have comparable incomes, similar education, and live in the same geographic location, minority populations sadly do not always receive the same standards of care as their white counterparts.1

Many health professions programs offer training to learners on addressing bias and improving care delivery for all patients. Over the past decade, some popular training programs include Trauma Informed Care, Adverse Childhood Experiences training, and Multicultural Training. These programs have included materials to serve patients better, with the primary focus on patients, not the providers of care.

Bias towards healthcare professionals from underrepresented and marginalized groups is, unfortunately, commonplace. A recent study “Harassment and Discrimination in Medical Training” found that most health professional trainees have experienced bias at some point in their career, most often based on their race, gender, or sexuality.2 


To address this problem, medical students and faculty at multiple institutions in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC created a training program for medical students to manage patient bias.3 The goal of this program was to prepare students for the biases they may encounter in practice.  The investigators created a simulation exercise whereby participants learned, in a safe environment, to navigate these situations.3

The simulations involved encounters with standardized patients. During the encounter, the student was instructed to tell the patient about a follow-up appointment that had been scheduled with a provider who had a foreign-sounding name. The standardized patient was instructed to either accept this appointment or request an alternative provider. The student was then instructed to use motivational interviewing techniques to understand where the request to change providers stemmed from. The possible reasons for the patient’s request were:

  • An untreated hearing loss made it difficult for the patient to understand accents
  • A belief that “foreigners shouldn’t be taking American jobs”
  • A preference to receive treatment from a physician who shares a similar cultural background due to the patient’s previous experiences of intolerance or disrespect

During the encounter, it was up to the student to determine the root cause of the request. In some instances, the request might lead to better patient care, and it should be honored. For example, in the case of a patient with hearing loss, switching to a provider without an accent, the patient might be able to better distinguish words spoken during the encounter. Of course, if the provider did not have an accent, the student should provide reassurance to the patient.  However, in some cases, the request to change providers was racially motivated. Of course, a surname does not always indicate the race of the provider. The point of this training experience was to allow students the opportunity, in a safe and controlled environment, to navigate through a patient request that, on the surface, may be motivated by racial bias. The goal is to develop the skills to uncover the root of these requests, rather than assuming that racism is the problem.

At the beginning and end of the course, students were surveyed to measure their growth. After completing the activities, students reported an increase in their confidence to explore intentions and beliefs, navigate a conversation with a patient exhibiting bias, and use nonverbal skills to demonstrate empathy.3

Addressing bias directed towards providers is not taught in most health professions' curricula or residency training programs. I think health-professional programs should begin to include this type of training so that students and residents are better equipped to manage patient bias.

The first step would be to give students exposure to patients who express a bias toward certain (commonly marginalized) groups. Nearly all students who participated in this simulation exercise stated they were very uncomfortable, but that it was a positive experience to be able to interact in a safe environment. The students stated they felt more prepared to manage these situations with real patients in practice.  Because learners should never be intentionally required to interact with people who have racial animus, they would learn how to assess patients’ requests, how to act in the face of bias, and how to move forward with patients who are explicitly or implicitly biased towards them or others. 

The next step would be to teach learners how to address patients who have explicit biases based on race, gender identity, and sexual preferences. Students must first be taught how to approach patients and uncover the rationale behind their biases. Once the student has uncovered the reasoning for the bias, there will be times when patients are explicitly racist, and students will need to be prepared (mentally) to manage the situation. Do they simply ignore and endure the bias? Do they refer the patient to alternative providers? Do they know when it is safe to speak up and say something to the patient? While there are no easy answers to these questions, the least we could do is provide students the opportunity to experience this type of conversation with patients before having to deal with it in the real world.

As with the implementation of any new training, cost becomes a factor to consider. The cost of hiring standardized patients may not be feasible for many programs. One workaround is to have volunteers serve as standardized patients, which could include faculty, upperclassmen, or alumni. Another way to mitigate the costs could be to have recordings of patient encounters, pausing the recording at various times to discuss with the class what they are observing. This option could open a rich class discussion on the negative consequences of bias toward marginalized patients as well as providers.

Bias in healthcare is not something we can eliminate, but we can build our skills to recognize and mitigate it.  We can prepare our students to uncover and address the biases they may encounter, including the bias that patients may express toward them or their professional colleagues. It is not ethical to know a problem exists, one that can mentally harm our learners, and do nothing to prepare them. It’s time to talk about patient bias and teach health professional students how to manage it.

References:

  1. Williams DR, Rucker TD. Understanding and addressing racial disparities in health care. Health Care Financ Rev 2000;21(4):75-90.
  2. Fnais N, Soobiah C, Chen MH, et al. Harassment and discrimination in medical training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Med 2014;89(5):817-27.
  3. Zewdie M, Duval M, Liu C, et al. Virtual Communication Across Differences: Development of a Workshop on Managing Patient Bias. Acad Med 2023;98(2):209-213.