A pharmacy educator’s look at the STATMed Study Skills Class
By Dr. Jim Culhane
I’ve been working in pharmacy education for almost 25 years. But, while I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student in an actual class. I’m a faculty member, Assistant Dean, and academic coach. So, most of my day is split between teaching pharmacology, administering and managing our school’s student educational success programs, and working one-on-one with pharmacy students in academic coaching. I have spent years researching evidence-based learning strategies and developing my own approach to operationalizing them to help my students. To that end, I am always interested to hear what others in the field are doing. So, when the invitation to participate in a STAT Med Study Skills course arose, I didn’t hesitate to accept.
I’ve known and worked with Ryan and Dave for many years and am familiar with the STATMed curriculum. The opportunity to dive deeper into their methodology and approach to learning was fascinating as I have always supported their work. During the 8-day course, I met extremely bright and capable students from medical, veterinary, and physician’s assistant programs. I gained greater insights into their challenges in each of their respective fields. I also gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my work with my students.
Here are my top 10 insights from the STATMed Study Skills Class for students who haven’t taken the course.
#10 Methodology Matters
The research shows that most students lack formal training in how to learn effectively. They rely on anecdotal experience, tips and tricks, and well-meaning advice from friends, faculty, and family. This is enough for some students in certain learning environments to carry them through. But for many, this learning skill deficiency can be disastrous.
I have spent many years learning and writing about the learning sciences to help struggling pharmacy students succeed. I am always inquisitive about what approaches are out there and how others are assisting the students to become more effective learners. Whenever I encounter a new approach to enhancing studying, I judge its merit by asking three simple questions.
1) Is it grounded in the learning sciences?
2) Does it use core evidence-based learning approaches like active recall, spacing, interleaving, and elaboration?
3) Does it use a systematic and interconnected approach that helps students develop skills associated with time management, workflow, organization, and studying?
The STATMed approach checks all these boxes for me. It is one of the most robust study systems I have come across and can work for students in challenging learning environments.
#9 Do your homework!!
Daily homework assignments allow students to practice the skills they learn in class. Many of these used authentic learning materials from various health fields (lecture notes, handouts, PowerPoint presentations) that added to the authenticity and relevance of the assignments. Students were asked to reflect on and share their experiences completing the homework. Students were encouraged to make mistakes when learning core skills and sharing their insights with classmates. As skills were acquired, the assignments became more complex, culminating in a capstone experience.
#8 You are not in this alone
If you are a student reading this blog struggling in your health professions program, please know that you are not alone. Many smart, capable students like the ones I met during my class are less than successful for reasons that have nothing to do with their intelligence, ability, and motivation. Numerous studies have shown that most students will gravitate toward ineffective study strategies. Strategies like reviewing notes, re-reading book chapters, condensing notes, cramming, and highlighting are low-yield. While these less-than-optimal approaches to learning are sometimes enough for them to perform well, especially in less demanding academic programs and environments, they can quickly collapse under the heavy learning burden of health professions programs.
#7 Think like an entrepreneur.
One of my favorite analogies Ryan used during the class was the office drone versus entrepreneur mentality that students bring to their learning. Many students approach their learning like office drones, “clocking in and out” each day, doing the work they need to do to stay in school without any strategy or structured approach. When failure occurs, they double down on their approaches and promise to “work harder and longer.” This strategy rarely works and tends to force students into a vicious, repeating loop that promotes burnout, causes extreme stress and anxiety and reinforces the idea that no matter how hard they work, they aren’t going to get the results they need.
Students that think like entrepreneurs take control of their learning. They plan and act strategically, set goals, and effectively use evidence-based approaches and resources (time, energy, etc.) to maximize their learning. They regularly reflect on successes and failures, adjust their study plans, and are forward-thinking. They are flexible, have numerous tools in their “learning toolbox,” and know when to use them to maximize their learning. The tools and skills taught in the STATMed class allow students to make that transition confidently and successfully.
#6 It’s all about FRAMEWORK
Throughout the course, Ryan spoke at length about two types of learners he has experienced in his work, “bottom-up” and “top-down.” According to Ryan, “bottom-up” learners are high structure builders and have robust executive functioning skills. These students can effectively and rapidly process large amounts of detailed information while simultaneously constructing a mental model of dense, disorganized learning materials that include organizational structure and details.
“Top-down” learners are easily overwhelmed with dense, complex, and lengthy learning materials. These students can have a difficult time seeing organization and structure. Without structure, these students struggle to understand and identify relationships between concepts and essential ideas and encode and consolidate information.
One of the course skills that address the issues that “top-down” learners experience is called frameworking. This skill teaches “top-down” learners how to find the organizational structure in learning materials so they can learn more effectively in and out of class. We spent a lot of time working on this skill during the course, and I was impressed to see how effective it was in detangling some of the dense, incomprehensible learning materials we used as examples and in the homework.
#5 I never knew I could use the second floor of my grandmother’s house and an anthropomorphized Venti Caramel Macchiato from Starbucks to help me remember, in detail, the four causes of hyperthyroidism.
Outside of the core skills of frameworking, dynamic reading and marking, and self-testing, Ryan and Dave teach their students several accessory skills to help them remember facts and information. These include mapping and memory palaces. While I had heard of these techniques, I had no experience with them, and I was skeptical as they sounded like gimmicks. My mind changed as I learned and applied these techniques to help me remember information with detail and accuracy. I wish I had known about these skills as a student — I know they would have made a massive difference in my learning.
#4 “By failing to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Trying to navigate a health professional program without a plan is a recipe for disaster. The amount of work the average student handles daily is too extensive to “wing it.” While most students would agree with this statement, many lack the knowledge, skills, and tools necessary to effectively manage learning massive amounts of dense information in short periods. During the class, Ryan taught a multilayered, interconnected approach to time and workflow management. He introduced easy-to-use tools like the ideal schedule, study manager, and academic study agenda that allow students to track their progress and control their work.
#3 Regarding exam questions, partial knowledge and strong test-taking skills can make all the difference.
One of the more interesting things that happened to me during the STATMed course was a shift in my belief about the utility of partial knowledge on exams. As a professor, I have cultivated a binary mentality about exam questions. You can either apply the material and get the question right, or you can’t. While I still believe this is primarily true for questions involving direct recall of facts or mathematical calculations, my thinking has shifted for clinical case vignettes that are common on didactic and board/licensing exams. I learned that if you have a structured approach to reading, analyzing, and answering these vignette questions, you can use partial knowledge and critical thinking skills to get the question right. As I practiced this approach, I was surprised to see that I could answer complex clinical board-style questions largely outside my area of expertise by using partial knowledge and the method taught in the STATMed class.
#2: All roads lead to retrieval practice.
I am a massive fan of evidence-based study strategies, and they serve as the foundation for all my work as an academic coach, advisor, and faculty member. Of all these strategies, the one “must-have” is retrieval practice. Also known as self-testing or active recall, this approach is based on the well-known and studied testing effect. Over 100 years of research have shown the act of attempting to remember something strengthens memory and encodes that information in long-term memory. I was happy to see that STATMed methodology relies heavily on this approach as well as other evidence-based approaches like spacing, interleaving, and elaboration.
#1 Students in this course undergo a profound transformation in how they approach learning in and out of the classroom.
As I took the Study Skills Class, I experienced it in two different ways, as a learner and a teacher. As a teacher and academic coach, I believe three key indicators need to be present if students are going to make headway in their academic performance. First, students need to have personal insights into why their approach to learning and studying is not working. Ryan has recently redesigned his studies skills course to include flipped classroom elements. This allowed him more time to debrief with students each day and to enable them to reflect on insights that they had gained. These in-class conversations allowed the students to learn from one another’s insights. Second, students need to be taught viable alternative behaviors and skills. It was clear that each of the students in the class quickly grasped the utility of each of the approaches they were learning and how they could help improve their time management and studying. The use of authentic learning materials and assignments helped to facilitate this. As they practiced each skill, they could see firsthand how that skill could benefit them both in and outside of the class. Lastly, students need to commit to behavior change for any of this to be effective. During the course, I could see my classmate’s realization that their prior approaches to learning weren’t working. Their commitment to tearing down and rebuilding those skills was evident. Each student demonstrated enthusiasm to use their newly acquired skills and knowledge, and their optimism grew daily.
As a learner, I experienced many insights and unexpected emotions. I also learned new skills and approaches to learning, and thoroughly enjoyed my experience. Ryan and his team take great pride in the product they have created. They listen to their clients, understand their unique learning struggles, and help them retool their learning approach to achieve their dreams of becoming health care providers. If you are someone who is struggling in your health professions program, I can’t recommend this course enough.
Interested in learning more? Check out the STATMed Study Skills Class today!
Don’t miss our 4-part miniseries where alumni debrief on their experience with the Study Skills Class.