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Volume 21, Number 1 Spring, 1994

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Using a Formal Collaborative Learning Paradigm for Veterinary Medical Education

W. R. Klemm
From the Department of Veterinary Anatomy & Public Health
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4458.


Too many faculty members in our Colleges of Veterinary Medicine are not really able to distinguish between lecturing and teaching. Too often the college classroom is a place where students are bombarded with facts from the podium that they frantically try to copy down in their notes. Louis Schmier, a professor at Valdosta State University, emphasizes the point this way: "there really is a hell of a difference between a teacher and a classroom presenter." Schmier summarizes where college pedagogy is today as follows: "Most people think that anyone can teach. All you have to do is stand at the head of the classroom, throw out crumbs of information in an automated lecture, and the students will eagerly peck away and nourish their minds. I call that schooling, not education; lecturing, not teaching. Our graduate schools train scholars and researchers who are thrown into classrooms without guidance. It's little wonder that most of us evolve into classroom presenters."(1)

Schmier believes that college teaching must change. He makes the case that "We are in a different age. It's hard to believe that less than thirty years ago only 14% of the graduating population went to college. That means that most students who are in our classes today would not have been there a quarter of a century ago. And so, what do we do about it? Well, I think we have several choices. We can ignore who is in the class and go on as usual as if nothing had happened, blame all the ills of declining quality of the student on the student, and wash our hands of the results. Or we can "water-down" our courses, lower our standards, contribute to grade inflation, and dilute the importance of the college degree. Or we can rise to the challenge and develop new approaches in our classrooms that allow us to maintain high standards while helping the student to rise to the occasion. If that student does not have the necessary tools and techniques at his/her disposal, it is our responsibility to help him/her get them and learn how to use them. We waste time bemoaning what they did not get in high school."(1)

Veterinary medical educators may challenge Schmier's concern over a changing student body, given that veterinary schools typically get the better students. Do the better students of today have the same capabilities and work ethic as those of 30 years ago? Whatever your position is about this question, it is a moot point, compared to the larger reality in veterinary medical education that the changing student body is compounded by the near-exponential rise in scientific and clinical information. In the sciences, where information is doubling about every 7 years, there is corresponding pressure to continue to "cover the material" as in the past. Since curricula do not provide extra time corresponding to the doubling rate of information, faculty seem compelled to get the material "covered" by talking faster, giving handouts of material that was not covered in class, and by requiring more outside reading. We faculty members are at the point where we cannot keep up this approach. Something has to give. What must give is the belief that everything has to be covered. Students need to learn basic concepts, not every detail. Moreover, they need to know how to use these concepts outside the classroom to learn to manage information, solve problems, and make informed decisions.

Veterinary medical educators have no choice but to find more effective teaching strategies than the traditional lecture. The question is not whether, but when. Teaching methods should require students to exercise their intellectual abilities, not just their memories. But, this will not happen until the faculty revise their notions of "covering" a course.

Several veterinary schools do have major efforts under way to reform their curricula along the lines of problem- or case-based learning, where a clinical case is the focus of learning. Case-based learning, done properly, makes teaching student centered instead of teacher centered. It stresses learning how to learn and how to manage information rather than merely memorizing facts.

Popular as case- or problem-based learning is with some educators, its principal advantages are embedded in the larger context of "collaborative or cooperative" small-group learning (CL). Collaborative learning may include case-based learning, but it is possible to use CL paradigms that are not case based. Case-based learning is not always a welcome teaching tool to basic science teachers, who (with some justification) fear that clinical material can come to dominate the instruction in the first two years of the curriculum - at the expense of proper education in the relevant academic disciplines. The CL paradigm addresses this concern of the basic science teachers and also the larger and more important concern expressed by Schmier. CL is a good approach for veterinary schools, even if a school does not make the curricular leap all the way to case-based instruction.

What is Collaborative Learning?

Collaborative learning occurs when small groups of students help each other to learn. Veterinary medical educators have appreciated a crude form of this teaching idea for decades; for example, witness the traditional use of small student groups in gross anatomy labs. Even so, when group learning is used in veterinary education, it is usually done in an informal, unstructured, and loosely monitored way. The full power of CL has not been exploited, even in gross anatomy - not to mention the other basic veterinary medical sciences.

Veterinary medical educators may be unaware of the formal literature on CL and the techniques used to structure a CL environment that operates at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. While learning ultimately is an individual enterprise, the support of a group with a common learning objective can produce a synergistic facilitation of learning by each member of that group. In short, CL is the process whereby each member contributes personal experience, information, perspective, insight, skills and attitudes with the intent of improving learning accomplishments of the others. The group's collective learning ultimately becomes possessed by each individual.

CL is sometimes misunderstood. It is not having students talk to each other, either face-to-face or in a computer conference, while they do their individual assignments. It is not having them do the task individually and then have those who finish first help those who have not yet finished. And it is certainly not having one or a few students do all the work, while the others append their names to the report.

Basic Elements of Collaborative Learning

Traditional education often stresses the learning of facts, as opposed to the development of higher-level reasoning skills that enable students to grasp the meaning of information and analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and apply it. CL promotes these critical thinking skills much better than competitive or individualistic learning environments (2-4). Johnson et al. (5) point out that there are 5 basic elementsin true CL:

1. Positive interdependence. Students need to believe that they are linked with others in a way that ensures that they all succeed together. Each participant may have a different role, but that role must be crucial to the group process. Example roles could include:
a) a reader who reads and interprets the assignment to the group;
b) an encourager who prods all members to participatin information gathering and discussion;
c) a summarize who restates the group's consensus findings;
d) a checker who makes sure that all members can explain how to solve the assigned problem or generate the appropriate report material;
e) an elaborator who relates the current concepts to what the group knows from previous experience; and
f) a recording observer who keeps track of how the group is performing and how each member is fulfilling the assigned role.

Grading can promote negative interdependence if one simply gives every member of the group the same grade. A better way is to give each member added points if every group member can score above some criterion score on an examination. Alternatively, the teacher can assign individual bonus points based on peer ranking on the basis of who contributed the most to the group effort. In essence, each student is graded partly on how effective that studentis in helping other students to learn. Some case-based CL programs, such as the one at Harvard Medical School, make this an explicit grading criterion.

2. Promotive interaction. Students help and encourage each other to learn. They do this by explaining what they understand and by gathering and sharing knowledge.

3. Individual accountability for the group's work. Each group member has to be accountable for three things: a) being active and engaged in group activity; b) doing a fair share of the work; and c) helping other group members to demonstrate competence and learning achievement. Not only is each person's performance assessed individually, but that evaluation is given to the rest of the group. Thus, each member of the group knows who needs what kind of help.

4. Social skills. Simply placing students together and telling them to be a team does not assure that they will behave that way. Teamwork skills have to be taught to many, if not most, people. The group process experience must include the learning of skills needed in leadership, decision making, trust building, communicating, and conflict management. Such skills stand veterinary students in good stead after graduation.

5. Group self-evaluating. The group needs to evaluate its process effectiveness continually. This can include asking such questions as: "What is something that each member contributed that helped the group? What is something each member can do that will help the group even more in the next session?

Clearly, the protocol for CL advocated by Johnson et al. is much more structured than that found, for example, in a typical gross anatomy class. Many veterinary medical educators have had enough experience with small-group discussions or seminars to have some feel for the social dynamics involved in CL. Therefore, it should not be too difficult to make the transition to a structured CL environment. CL can also be accomplished even in the less social environment of computer conferencing (6).

Effectiveness of Collaborative Learning

There is extensive literature on the effectiveness of collaborative learning (7). Many of these studies were carefully controlled to test the hypothesis that collaborative learning was more effective then other modes of instructional delivery. This research shows that CL can be used with some confidence at every age level, in every subject area, with any curriculum, and with any task.

The evidence for the effectiveness of peer teaching is well accepted for a wide range of goals, content, and students (8). This effectiveness has been repeatedly documented for the past 90 years. Over 575 experimental and 100 correlational studies have been conducted by a wide variety of researchers who tested subjects of differing age, cultures, and geographical areas (9). A specific recent example comes from the Harvard assessment seminars, which compared grades of students who studied alone vs. those of students who studied in groups of four to six (10). Students who studied in groups consistently had higher grades than those who studied alone. Additionally, group-study students spoke more often in class, asked more questions, and were more generally engaged.

Why Collaborative Learning Is So Effective

CL can be exciting for the students because they must become actively engaged. Indeed, that is why collaborative learning is more effective than the typical lecture mode where students are passive "vessels" to be filled with information.

Another advantage is the socialization that collaborative learning promotes. This seems particularly applicable to veterinary students who typically operate under severe academic and financial stress. CL creates a learning community, enhances the recruitment and retention of students, increases the quality of student life on campus, helps students gain needed interpersonal and small group skills, creates a shared identity among students and faculty personnel, and networks students into caring and supportive relationships that will last a lifetime (7). CL is especially needed when students are heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity, gender, culture, and achievement. The enemies of veterinary medical education are isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and failure. A learning community characterized by personal and academic support is first and foremost created by involving students in cooperative efforts with each other and with the faculty.

Smith (11) summarizes some of the reasons why CL is more effective than most other approaches:

  1. 1. The student who learns best is the one who organizes, summarizes, elaborates, explains, and defends. The person who does the intellectual work, especially the conceptual work, learns the most.
  2. 2. More learning occurs in an environment of peer support and encouragement because students eagerly work harder and longer (12).
  3. 3. Students learn more when they're doing things they enjoy.

Effective teaching strategies require the students - not the teacher - to do the conceptualizing, the organizing, and the theorizing about the subject matter. Peer teaching fosters this kind of engagement of the students, and peer teaching via computer conferencing can enhance the intellectual rigor.

To this list we can add the fact that collaborative effort helps to achieve that higher level of learning, critical thinking, which is stimulated by group analysis, critique, debate, and shared perspective (13). Critical thinking skills are honed by the inherent obligation in CL to communicate explicitly one's knowledge and understanding (14). CL directly develops problem-solving strategies and skills because group interaction and communication make operational the requisite cognitive processes (15-17).

An Example Protocol

The most obvious application of collaborative learning is in connection with problems in the basic sciences or case studies. Smith (11) presents a sample formal CL lesson template, or plan, for a problem-solving lesson as follows:


Task: Solve the problem(s) correctly. Such problems are readily constructed within the basic sciences. Veterinary examples could include:

  1. What is the pattern of muscle contraction required to achieve the urinating posture of the male dog?
  2. How is the heart rate regulated?
  3. How does ligand binding lead to biological response?
  4. What are the mechanisms that enable successful vaccination?
  5. What are the components of the adrenal stress response, and how do they interact?
  6. Is ketamine an anesthetic? Why or why not?

Within-group cooperative activity: The group must provide at least one set of answers. Everyone must explain the strategies used to solve each problem.
Expected criteria for success: Everyone must be able to explain the principles and strategies used to solve each problem.
Individual accountability: One member from each group may be randomly chosen to explain a) the answer and b) how to solve each problem. Alternatively, require each group member to explain the group's answers to a member of another group.
Expected behaviors: Active participating, checking, encouraging, and elaborating by all members.
Between-group cooperative activity: Whenever it is helpful, check procedures, answers, and strategies with another group.


To implement such scenarios, each student in the group can have a designated role (reader, checker, summarizer, etc.), as mentioned earlier. The problems (or cases) can be distributed as printed handouts, which can be the basis of group work in the lecture hall, laboratory, or tutorial room. Such collaborative student groups do not require a personal tutor. Such groups are student centered, not tutor centered, and completing assigned learning tasks are the responsibility of the group and its members (18). The most important role of the instructor remains what it has always been in lecture mode: discerning and communicating what is important for students to learn. One clinical biochemistry professor has published his experiences in converting a traditional lecture class to CL format (19).

Barriers to Overcome

There are practices that may make collaborative learning counter-productive. In the experience of Prescott (20), practices to avoid include:

1) giving only a group grade;
2) assigning team projects that require frequent and extensive meetings outside of class;
3) poorly structured team practice activities with unclear directions;
4) not monitoring and observing students as they work together; and
5) evading necessary interventions with individual students.

Perhaps the major obstacle to embracing collaborative learning in veterinary medical education is the lecture tradition to which most of us have become bound. Opponents of case-based learning, for example, typically complain that it abandons the lecture, which arguably is the most effective means of information transmission.

CL programs do not have to eliminate lecturing, and some do not (e.g., the program at Harvard Medical School). CL programs not only can co-exist with lecturing, but can even be built around lectures.

Another major obstacle is the nature and mind-set of the typical veterinary student. Veterinary students are compulsive and highly motivated. They have been selected because of their ability to compete - not for how well they cooperate. Throughout most of their early schooling, and certainly in college, they have had little incentive to help other students, who in many cases were competing for the same chairs in a veterinary class.

Once admitted to veterinary school, competition with peers should become less necessary. All students must meet the same standards of professional competence. Each student's success should not be achieved at the expense of any other student. This does not serve the interests of the profession.

The Future of Collaborative Learning

From day one of veterinary school, faculty need to explain how things have changed for the entering student. The ever-increasing scope and complexity of veterinary medical education requires that students help each other and work as a team. It is the faculty's task to structure learning environments that expedite such collaboration. Whether as the vehicle for case-based learning or in more traditional lecture formats, collaborative learning can be expected to become increasingly necessary.

Instilling a team spirit can have long-lasting consequences that extend far beyond veterinary school. We can expect more involvement and support in professional veterinary organizations. More and more practices are team practices; a survey of 1993 graduates at Texas A&M showed that of those going into private practice, all but one were entering practices with two or more veterinarians; 57% were entering practices with three or more veterinarians (21). A professional education that stresses CL sets the stage for group practice, which is increasingly becoming the standard mode for the practice of veterinary medicine. Even though some veterinarians will engage in single-member practices, today's evolving telecommunications and computer network systems are making it possible for veterinarians to continue collaborative learning beyond graduation by use of computer conferencing.

Computer conferencing supports many-to-many communication, rather than the one-to-one or one-to-many mode of electronic mail. Computer conferencing where students don't have to be in the same place at the same time has some major advantages over face-to-face tutorial forms of CL. These include:

  1. 1. Schedule conflicts are avoided. While veterinary students commonly have an 8-to-5 class schedule, they still haveschedule conflicts outside of class. Indeed, many veterinary educatorsthink that veterinary students should be doing more independent work and not have an 8-to-5 class schedule.
  2. 2. There is time for research and "outside" study. There is lesscasual, "off-the-top-of-the-head" commentary; there is time for reflection and research on the input to a computer conference.
  3. 3. The written format encourages: a) more thoughtful analysis, synthesis, and application and b) clearer and more precise thinking.
  4. 4. The written format also provides: a) a permanent record of who said what so that credit can be given where it is due; b) a retrievable source of material for later study; and c) practice in written communication.
  5. 5. Shyor under-performing students cannot "hide" behind the work of others or if they do hide, it is obvious to everybody.

The disadvantages of computer-mediated CL is that many students cannot type, are not comfortable with computers, and may not have sufficient access to computers. These limitations, it could be argued, are ones that the education community should address.

Teaching via computer conferencing is becoming commonplace (22), and good software is already available for IBM-type systems: Caucus (23),CM/1 (24), FORUM (25). Continuing education, both formal and informal, is bound to exploit new communication technologies that are based around collaborative learning.

Summary

Several veterinary schools have majorefforts under way to reform their curricula along the lines of problem- or case-based learning, where a clinical case is the focus of learning. Case-based learning, done properly, stresses learning how to learn and how to manage information rather than merely how to memorize facts. Popular as case-or problem-based learning is with some educators, its principal advantages are embedded in the larger context of "collaborative or cooperative" small-group learning (CL). Collaborative learning may include case-based learning, but it is possible to use CL paradigms that are not case based. Case-based learning is not always a welcome teaching tool to basic science teachers, who (with some justification) fear that clinical material can come to dominate the instruction in the first two years of the curriculum - at the expense of proper education in the relevant academic disciplines. The CL paradigm can address this concern.

Collaborative learning is the process whereby each member contributes personal experience, information, perspective, insight, skills, and attitudes with the intent of improving learning accomplishments of the others. The group's collective learning ultimately becomes possessed by each individual. Traditional veterinary medical education often stresses rote memorization of facts, as opposed to the development of higher-level reasoning skills that enable students to grasp the meaning of information and analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and apply information. CL promotes these critical thinking skills much better than competitive or individualistic learning environments. An example protocol that could be used with veterinary students could involve the assignment of a task or problem to which each student group must provide a group answer. Each member has an assigned role in the group process, and each group member must be able to explain and apply the principles and strategies used to get the answer. A group can check procedures, answers, and strategies with other groups.

I conclude that CL is a good approach for colleges of veterinary medicine, even if a school does not make the curricular leap all the way to case-based instruction.

References and Endnotes

1. Schmier L: Personal communication on an Internet bulletin board, 1993.

2. Gabbert B, Johnson DW and Johnson R: Cooperative learning, group-to-individual transfer, process gain, and the acquisition of cognitive reasoning strategies. J Psychol 120:265-278, 1986.

3. Johnson DW and Johnson RT: Effects of cooperative and individualistic learning experiences on interethnic interaction. J Educ Psych 73:454-459, 198l.

4. Johnson DW, Skon L and Johnson RT: Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic conditions on children's problem-solving performance. Amer Ed Res J 17:83-94, 1980.

5. Johnson DW, Johnson RT, Stanne M and Garibaldi A: The impact of leader and member group processing on achievement in cooperative groups. J Soc Psycho 130:507-516, 1990.

6. Kaye A: Learning together apart. In Kaye AR (Ed.):Collaborative Learning Through Computer Conferencing. NATO ASI Series. Vol 90. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1992, pp 1-24.

7. Johnson DW and Johnson RT: Cooperative learning: where we have been, where we are going. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching. Vol 3, No. 2, Winter, 1993.

8. McKeachie W: Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher, 8th ed. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1986.

9. Johnson DW and Johnson RT: Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co, 1989.

10. Light RJ: The Harvard Assessment Seminars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1990.

11. Smith KA: Cooperative learning and problem solving. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching. Vol 3, No. 2 Winter. 1993.

12. Rogers C: Encounter Groups. New York: Penguin Press, 1970.

13. Bruner JS: Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. London: Harvard Univ Press, 1984.

14. Vygotsky LS: Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1962.

15. Damon W: Peer education: the untapped potential. Appl Develop Psychol 5:331-343, 1984.

16. Forman EA and Cazden CB: Exploring Vygotskian perspectives in education: the cognitive value of peer interaction. In Wertsch JV (Ed.): Culture, Communication, and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 1985.

17. Webb NM: Student interaction and learning in small groups. Rev of Educ Research 52:421-445, 1982.

18. Jackson MW and Prosser MT: Less lecturing, more learning. Studies in Higher Educ 14:55-68, 1989.

19. Schwartz PL: Active, small group learning with a large group in a lecture theatre: a practical example. Med Teacher 11:81-86, 1989.

20. Prescott S: Trouble shooting cooperative learning. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching. Vol 3, No 2 Winter. 1993.

21. Herron MA: Personal communication. Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 1993.

22. Rapaport M: Computer Mediated Communications. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991.

23. Caucus, Aule-Tek, Inc., 1223 Peoples Avenue, Troy, NY 12180.

24. CM/1, Corporate Memory Systems, Inc., 8920 Business Park Drive, Austin, TX 78759.

25. FORUM, Forum Enterprises, Inc., P.O. Box 5755, Bryan, TX 77802.

26. The author would like to thank the following educator colleagues for their constructive suggestions for this manuscript: Bill Banks, Gerald Bratton, Mary Herron, John Shadduck, Jim Snell, Brad Weeks and Alice Wolf.


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