Learning in Real Life

Photograph of two women sitting on stairs

Students today are looking for more opportunities to engage with the community and apply their skills in real-life situations. Educators at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry are answering the call

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

It was in the fourth century BC when Aristotle professed, “their using the language of knowledge is no proof that they possess it.”

Despite this early recognition that a person can only truly understand theory when they have an opportunity to apply it, experiential learning only began growing in popularity in the 1970s.

Students today, more than ever before, crave authentic learning experiences and are demanding courses that offer experiential and engaged learning which give them the opportunity to apply theory and skills.

Education leaders at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry have answered the call.

Courses and workshops connecting learners with real-life experiences are embedded into the curriculum across the spectrum of programs including medicine, dentistry, medical sciences and public health.

“What starts off as uncertainty for the learner during the experience, ends up bringing confidence, a greater sense of self-worth and self-esteem,” said Joan Binnendyk, PhD. Binnendyk is an educationalist who researched and created a two-day workshop that trains residents how to teach and puts them through their paces using a variety of hands-on activities including teaching patients.

Sarah McLean, PhD’12, who oversees the Community Engaged Learning component of a fourth-year course in the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program, agrees with Binnendyk.

“I see a lot of growth and maturity in the students, which is realized by having them work through complex issues while engaging with the community in real-life scenarios,” she said.

Yashasavi Sachar, BMSc’19, was one of McLean’s students during the 2018-19 academic year. Together with five of his classmates, he worked with the Centre for Research on Health Equity and Social Inclusion (CRHESI), which is an interdisciplinary, collaborative initiative led jointly by the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western and the London InterCommunity Health Centre. The full-term course had them working closely with the Centre to identify service gaps for marginalized populations.

For Sachar it was the collaboration with his team members and CRHESI that was most exciting.

Photograph of Jona Szakacs, Dr. Dema Kadri and Yashasavi Sachar sitting around the table talking“There is something about doing a project of this kind that gives you the opportunity to get engaged with each other,” Sachar said. “It made us feel more connected to one another; we learned how to communicate and collaborate better, and then all of a sudden learning was happening.”

Second-year medical student Meera Shah says that the two-year Professional Portfolio course surpassed her expectations. During the first year of the course, students are introduced to the art and practice of self-reflection and are provided a safe space to write about their experience as a medical trainee.

In second year, students are divided into groups of two or three and paired up with a patient living independently with a chronic disease or the family of a patient. The goal is for students to understand what the patient experiences and how they survive and thrive despite their disease. They achieve this through regular visits with the family and the completion of scholarly work.

“We train students to be medical students and sometimes the notion of caring for a person gets lost in the massive amount of information students receive,” said Dr. George Kim, MD’03, who is one of the course leads. “This experience is an awakening for the students, and it’s tied to what they have all wanted to be.”

Shah and her team members, Wesley Tin and Zeke Guy, were partnered with Katie, who is living with aphasia as a result of stroke. The students met Katie and her husband, Bernie, regularly.

“They came to visit with Katie every few weeks and became an important part of her life,” said Bernie. “They had genuine compassion and interest and Katie said that she felt listened to, which isn’t the case with everyone she encounters.”

Shah says that the course and interaction with the patients and their families was crucial to her fully appreciating social medicine.

“Health is not just disease,” she said. “It encompasses the social and psychological sides of people, and this course has helped me to know how to manage health care holistically.”

“We train students to be medical students and sometimes the notion of caring for a person gets lost in the massive amount of information students receive.” — Dr. George Kim, MD’03

Master of Public Health (MPH) Candidate Jenna Schlorff says that working with the West Elgin Community Health Centre for three months as part of a community-engaged learning project within the Com-munity Health Assessment and Program Evaluation course was humbling.

“In the classroom and even in our small groups, things are black and white and simple, but when you get to the community it isn’t.”

The Community Engaged Learning project is offered to all MPH students and connects small groups with organizations across the region including local health units, My Sister’s Place, Participation House and Growing Chefs.

Like Shah, Schlorff says that the course provided innumerable lessons.

“You have a chance to figure out how to apply your classroom learning in a real-world setting, get an expanded sense of what public health is and learn from community members, who are doing this every day,” she said.

As Schlorff and her classmates prepared to head out the door to meet with their community partners, they were reminded by their professors about the value of relationships and to stay humble, to listen, to work alongside the community and expect uncertainty, to keep an open mind and never underestimate the strengths of an organization. One of those professors is Lloy Wylie, PhD, who is the driving force behind the course.

Professionalism, record keeping, ethical principles and the dentist/patient relationship are just a few of the topics that Schulich Dentistry students focus on in the Practice Administration course. The course prepares students for their interactions with patients, allowing them to be comfortable with the moral and legal obligations of their profession and providing a foundation to business operations.

“The course teaches us the intangibles of the dental profession,” said Schulich Dentistry student Jona Szakacs. “I’ve come away with a much better understanding about how to interact with patients and staff and how to be a professional.”

Most importantly, Szakacs has come to appreciate the responsibility and leadership expectations that come with being a health care provider and how to respect and value the fragility of the trust between the practitioner and patient.

Ask any physician who their most influential teacher was and most will say that it was a resident. In fact, evidence shows that one-third of all learning for medical students comes from residents, and yet few residents have any formal teaching, assessment or feedback training.

The two-day Resident Boot Camp annually offers 36 residents an opportunity to learn from some of the best faculty and to hone and apply their skills in supporting learners in difficulty, teaching in clinical scenarios and teaching in the presence of patients.

“Before the Boot Camp, I had never done any formal teacher training,” said second-year family medicine resident Dr. Dema Kadri, MD’17. “I found that I was always questioning whether I was doing things properly.”

For Dr. Kadri, the Boot Camp offered training and the opportunity to practise in a safe space, so she could develop her confidence and come away with tools she has practised, will use and will share with her fellow residents.

None of this learning can take place without the partnership with community members and organizations in London and the surrounding region.

“The patients and families who have been working with us on this course for the past four years are helping us to construct a really unique part of the curriculum that is setting up our students for success,” said Dr. Kim. “We couldn’t do this without them.”

Binnendyk and McLean echo Dr. Kim’s acknowledgement of the vital role community partners are playing in providing experiential learning experiences.

“We are preparing students to go out into the world and help those in need; you can’t do that in the absence of the community,” said McLean.