Each month the IAMSE Publications Committee reviews published articles from the archives of Medical Science Educator or of its predecessor JIAMSE. This month’s review, written by Dr. Louis B. Justement, is taken from the article titled Analysis of Strategies for the Teaching of Difficult Threshold Concepts in Large Undergraduate Medicine and Science Classes, published in the Medical Science Educator, Volume 27, (pages 673-684), 2017.
A critical issue that underpins teaching in undergraduate medical and science classes, particularly large format classes, relates to the fact that one needs to identify effective ways to help students grasp threshold concepts. Threshold concepts are those concepts that are often difficult to fully understand but are critical for transforming one’s appreciation of a larger topic or area of science. Studies have yet to be performed to identify the most effective methods for helping students grasp threshold concepts in large classroom settings. Moreover, it is also not clear whether the same approaches will be equally effective in settings where the student populations are distinct in terms of their background and future career path. This question is particularly relevant in those introductory classroom settings where there is limited individual instruction and where other resources may be limited on a per student basis to support the educational mission.
One such study to better understand the association between multiple interventions to teach a threshold concept and their relative effectiveness in an undergraduate medicine versus science class environment is discussed in a recent paper entitled Analysis of Strategies for the Teaching of Difficult Threshold Concepts in Large Undergraduate Medicine and Science Classes, published in the Medical Science Educator, Volume 27, (pages 673-684), 2017, by authors SK Delaney, J Mills, A Galea, R LeBard, J Wilson, KJ Gibson, G Kornfeld and B Ashraf.
In this study, the authors focus on the field of genetics and teaching the threshold concept associated with the Hardy-Weinberg law, or equilibrium as it is often referred to. The study was conducted in large format medicine and science classes at the University of New South Wales and multiple interventions were employed to assist students in grasping the concept, including lecture-based simulation, small group tutorials, computer simulation and a variety of learning resources. Student knowledge was then assessed and students were surveyed to determine student perceptions of various learning interventions and their effectiveness.
This study provides important understanding of the complexities associated with teaching threshold concepts. It was determined that students achieve a similar level of understanding of threshold concepts regardless of background if a variety of teaching interventions are offered. However, the authors did determine that different student groups may exhibit preferences for distinct types of teaching interventions depending on the type of class and their individual learning style. Most importantly, the degree of preference for specific types of teaching interventions is more varied within any given group of students, for example medicine or science student groups, than across different types of students, i.e. medicine versus science. Based on these findings the authors conclude that it is more effective to teach threshold concepts by employing a combination of interventions, e.g. lecture-based simulations and small group tutorials, in a given setting than by using one or the other.
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