A Different Approach to Learning

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Study shows that a cost-effective and innovative teaching approach matches current practice.
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Dr. Ryan Brydges, Scientist at The Wilson Centre, Affiliate Scientist at TIER, Director of Research at the Allan Waters Family Simulation Centre, and Associate Professor at University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

A study from The Institute for Education Research (TIER) suggests that a type of health care education strategy that is not commonly used could perform as well as current models while requiring less resources. 

Currently, the most used instructional approach is called ‘mastery learning’. This approach focuses on developing students’ conceptual knowledge through integrated instruction and testing from an educator. However, as health care practice evolves, practitioners are faced with the need to ‘think outside the box’ to address clinical problems they have not previously encountered. 

“There’s a need for ways of teaching that help to prime clinicians for future learning,” explains Dr. Ryan Brydges, and Affiliate Scientist at TIER. “Our goal is to study how different training interventions impact a learner’s capacity to use resources and develop strategies to solve novel problems,” he adds. 

To study various teaching approaches, the research team conducted a trial, in which participants were split into small groups of approximately 20 individuals. Each group attended two learning sessions on how to complete a particular task using one of the learning approaches. Pre- and post-examinations were completed so that the research team could assess the participants' ability to perform the task.  

The three instructional approaches that were taught are listed below:  

mastery learning: guided teaching with an instructor and the current teaching standard
invent and problem-solve, followed by instruction: an ‘invention phase’ where students are free to experiment and fail, in order to learn the structural features of the problem, followed by formal instruction
instruction-then-problem-solving: formal instruction is provided first, then students can practice with supervision 

The researcher's results indicate that the ‘invent and problem-solve, followed by instruction’ approach is comparable in terms of skills acquisition and preparation for future learning than the other two approaches already in use.  

“Our findings question the preference that we currently have for the mastery learning approach, which requires a significant investment in time, consumables and human resources,” states Dr. Brydges.  

Although this study has some limitations, like the limited number of participants, it paves the way for future studies that will be focused on comparing the cost-effectiveness of the teaching approaches.   

This work was supported by St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto, the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University and the UHN Foundation. 

Brydges, R., Fiume, A., & Grierson, L. Mastery versus invention learning: impacts on future learning of simulated procedural skills. Advances in health sciences education: theory and practice, 27(2), 441–456, 2022 Mar 23. DOI: 10.1007/s10459-022-10094-x.

It is through the process of devising and testing approaches that the student comes to learn the underlying structural features of a problem that make one solution more or less effective.