Jones & Bartlett Learning Health Blog

    Teaching “The Why” of Scientific Concepts to Health Profession Students

    Posted by Bernadette Howlett, Ph.D. on Mar 13, 2020 9:00:00 AM

    Overwhelmed male student with a pile of booksIf you teach science subject matter to students in health professional programs, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the lament, “Why do I have to learn this? I’ll never use this information.” It can be surprising and concerning to hear future health professionals declare topics such as statistics, research, biology, chemistry, and others in their programs as "irrelevant" to their intended careers—in some cases before they have worked a single day in that career. Even more concerning, it’s not unusual for there to be high failure rates associated with these subjects for health professional students.

    The keys to success are to help students connect the dots between the course subject matter and the profession in which it will be applied, to employ social-emotional learning (SEL) principles to support confidence-building and reduction of anxiety associated with the material, and utilize active learning approaches. In a review of 23 studies on the teaching of bio-sciences, Jensen Knutstad, and Fawcett (2018) found that giving a coherent rationale for the science content in the health program curriculum is associated with better learning outcomes. 

    Barriers and solutions


    The following teaching and design strategies can address these issues:

    • Ensure the learning outcomes, assessments, and course materials remain sharply focused on the information the health professional needs.

    • Collaborate between science and health profession educators to design learning activities and assessments that demonstrate the relevance of the course material to professional practice.

    • Use interprofessional teaching by co-teaching the subject with health professionals or include health professionals as guest lecturers.

    • Include real-life application stories.

    • Gamify the course with problem-solving activities to connect the content to clinical applications and provide hands-on learning experiences.

    • Design learning to support student development of self-efficacy and coherence. (Consider testing students’ Self Efficacy for Science, SEFS, or Self Efficacy for Academic Performance, SEAP.)

    • Include SEL as a subject in the curriculum and reinforce it throughout science courses.

    • Utilize active learning (such as flipped classrooms) and small-bite content units (such as podcasts).


    About the AuthorEvidence-Based Practice for Health Professionals

    Bernadette Howlett, Ph.D. is an author, consultant, and educator who teaches evidence-based practice as an adjunct faculty member. She has been the Director of a research institute and also a Chief Research Officer of a medical school. She was an associate professor and research coordinator for a physician assistant (PA) studies program. She is currently an affiliate faculty member with the Kasiska Division of Health Sciences at Idaho State University contracted to design and teach courses in evidence-based practice as well as interprofessional practice. 

    Evidence-Based Practice for Health Professionals, Second Edition is a resource for health professions students, residents, and practicing professionals. It explores the basic concepts of evidence-based practice with a clinical emphasis. This text gives readers the knowledge and tools to make self-informed, evidence-based decisions, and to communicate effectively with professionals in the pharmaceutical, medical device, and nutraceutical industries.

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