Looking for Cases in All the Right Places

Engaging students in the learning process is no easy task; yet, it’s key to effective learning. Let’s face it, some topics are not that exciting; and exciting topics may be presented in a less-than-exciting manner. Regardless, students need to learn and retain the information.

So, how does an instructor spark student interest in the material? More importantly, how do instructors engage them so they retain the information and can apply it to real-life situations?

For answers Dr. Jodi Smith, veterinary pathologist at the College of Veterinary Medicine, relied on the familiar – her own educational experience. Then, she looked beyond the familiar.

“Historically case-based learning has been used in medical education because it helps develop the critical thinking and diagnostic skills that students will need,” Smith said.

Using the case-based teaching method, Smith taught the principles of pathology course in the biomedical sciences master’s degree (non-thesis) program in the College of Veterinary Medicine. During the course, Smith’s students were given veterinary case studies – a dog with congestive heart failure and a dog with antifreeze poisoning.

It seemed logical to Smith to use the veterinary cases. But a large number of the students were interested in pursuing careers in human medicine and other allied health professions, and suggested including a human case in the course. “I didn’t have the expertise to do that,” said Smith.

Smith didn’t have to look far to find someone who could help her with a case. She reached out to professional colleague and friend, Dr. Bonnie Beer, a local physician who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology.

“I cornered Dr. Beer after church about developing a human case for the class,” Smith said. Together they generated a case. “Dr. Beer did most of the authoring,” Smith said.

The case they developed was a woman with preeclampsia – a condition that usually occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy, characterized by high blood pressure and potential damage to other organ systems such as the liver and kidneys. “We selected that condition because it provided a number of clinical signs and abnormalities that the students could connect back to general pathology concepts that they had learned earlier in the semester,” Smith said.

Over three classes, Smith presents the case to the class. “There are a series of questions throughout the case study that they have to answer to start thinking about the problem,” Smith said. “Struggling and working through the case in groups forces them to apply their knowledge logically and start to develop diagnostic skills,” Smith said.

During the fourth session, the groups present their pathogenesis concept maps. A concept map is a diagram of the relationships of the clinical signs (data) to the underlying disease mechanisms. “Their goal is to identify the root cause of the disease and then detail the mechanisms that ultimately result in the abnormalities (pathology),” Smith added.

“I invited Dr. Beer to attend the class to provide a clinical perspective on the condition,” Smith said. “She was impressed with the students’ level of engagement and their concept maps.”

Last spring was the first time Smith incorporated a human case into the course. Asked whether she will continue to include one in future classes, Smith responded: “The students were very positive and enthusiastic about the experience. So, yes.”

Smith sees an additional benefit. “The inclusion of both cases helps illustrate how similar human and veterinary medicine is. For some students, it may be the first time they see the interconnection.”