We’re coming to the end of a long academic year in New Zealand, so that means lots of examination and assessment of nervous students.
This time last year I took over a postgraduate paper called Health Professional Practice with a view to ‘reshaping’ it. For years it had been delivered in a standard fashion: block study, lots of lectures and tutorials – mostly directed at students rather than engaging them, boring assessments. I decided to shake things up a bit.
The paper needed to be much more about what made the students ‘tick’ as health professionals; their experiences, ideas and issues. But it also needed to get them to critically examine their professions in ways they hadn’t done before. And then it needed to take into account the ‘others’ that they worked with – their clients/patients, colleagues and competitors, managers and legislators. So those became our learning outcomes.
The students also needed to be more engaged. So we got rid of all the lectures and filled the paper with activities to make them reflect and analyse. The theory content was given in pre-recorded lectures that they could listen to anytime, and their readings were carefully curated.
Each week, students had new activities posted online. Some weeks they were asked to write a letter of appreciation to someone who had been important to their career, other times they were asked to make a photo gallery of their workplace, or design an idea tree. But each week they were asked to think about themselves, their profession, and the others they worked with in different ways.
Over two 2-day study blocks spaced out during the semester they did more activites, like designing barrier diagrams, analysing professional lifelines, and force-field analyses.
And for the assessment they had to design six of their own activities and use these to say something significant about their practice. They had to tie all of these together around a common theme, and critique their work using the social theories we’d introduced them to.
The students have recently handed in their work, and what they’ve produced is astonishing. A game of snakes and ladders adapted to represent a patient’s journey through spinal cord injury rehab; a scale model of a DNA double helix to represent the practitioners personal and professional life; a Samoan dance performance to express the person’s cultural identity.
Students have written poems, built scale models, adapted children’s games, designed Prezi files and multimedia presentations, written music, and built photo galleries, and all of this, remember, as a way to critically analyse their professional practice.
Many have never been asked to do this kind of work before, and most have been introduced to social theories like functionalism, Marxism, and postmodernism for the first time.
The paper has run in its revised form for two semesters now, and the students are rating it as one of the most popular courses in our Faculty, which teaches more than 2,000 courses each year.
One of the most common questions I get asked is why is that other papers aren’t as engaging as this, because clearly when you give health professionals the scope to think creatively, innovatively and metaphorically about their work, they can do it.
Working on a course like this really shows up how dry and dispiriting our current approaches to learning and teaching can often be. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we’re struggling to think of new ways to adapt to the changing economy of healthcare?