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New Learning Styles Educate Veterinarians
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- While many students complain that their instructors give them problems, at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, carefully designed problems are the basis of the curriculum.
A unique style of learning goes beyond typical classroom instruction and teaches students to become independent learners with problem-solving skills. The first two years of the four-year veterinary curriculum at MSU are founded on problem-based learning, or PBL.
Dr. Wayne Groce, director of the CVM's Office of Special Programs, said the college's first exclusive PBL class entered in 1993. These students will graduate this spring.
PBL presents students with real-life problems and creates an active, student-centered learning environment.
"PBL is primarily a way to address the information overload facing veterinary students," Groce said. "There is so much material available in these fields and students are taught where to go for information rather than having all the information in their heads.
"The problem-solving aspect is also very important," he added.
With problem-solving skills, veterinarians can deal with situations not yet encountered in practice or class, Groce said.
"PBL forces students to interpret data, apply veterinary medical knowledge and learn new information as they solve case problems," Groce said. "This prepares them for all areas of veterinary practice, including food animal production medicine."
Groce said there is a shortage of food animal veterinarians to serve the livestock, poultry and aquaculture industries. Most such veterinarians come from a farm background, which represents less than 3 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 55,000 current members of the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 1.4 percent are exclusively in food animal practice.
All veterinary students spend most of their first two years at MSU in small PBL groups -- along with some traditional classes and labs. Junior and senior years are spent in on-campus clinical rotations and off-campus externships getting hands-on experience.
MSU differs from traditional veterinary programs which offer three years of classroom lectures and labs with limited tracking and specialization. Traditional senior year programs provide clinical training and maybe one to two months of externships.
At MSU's veterinary college, faculty members lead small PBL groups in two-hour sessions three times a week. Students leave these with a list of issues they must explore independently before proceeding with the problem at the next session.
Since 1987, the third year in the curriculum is spent doing clinical rotations, as juniors assist faculty in the college's teaching hospital. Rotations include equine, food animal, community practice, surgery, radiology, anesthesiology and more.
Veterinary students spend their senior year doing externships with established practices and institutions around the nation and world. Students set these up with facilities that operate in a field the student would like to learn. Students complete six to eight of these four-week externships in their senior year.
"Not only do externships provide valuable real-life experience, they also allow potential employers to see the student at work," Groce said.
Included in the senior year is a 12-week period students spend at MSU taking specialized classes. Among the topics offered are intensive care, pharmacy and professional development.
Although PBL is the heart of the curriculum at MSU's veterinary college, Groce said not everyone likes the system. PBL requires a style of learning unlike most of the students' previous educational experiences. Initially, some students are uncomfortable not attending lectures, taking tests and doing other routine classroom activities.
"It can be a real trial to some until they get used to it," Groce said. "But once they master the technique, they become lifelong learners."