7 Tips for Designing a Successful Medical Education Course

As each semester ends, the planning for the next set of courses is already well underway. It’s what makes the cycle of the academic calendar feel never-ending. 

[If you don’t work in healthcare education and stumbled upon this article, yes...we even work in the summer as we’re prepping for the fall semester, among other tasks.]

Whether you’ve taught the same course for the past decade or you’re venturing into a new set of content for the first time, it’s important to have a strategic plan for each semester. As an instructional designer in medical education, I’ve had a front row seat to the planning process for all types of healthcare education courses. Through years of witnessing successes and failures, I’ve been fortunate to encounter the nuances of building courses that support positive student outcomes. So, let’s get to the list—below are seven tips for creating successful healthcare education courses.

1. Be Goal-Oriented

This can be easier said than done. As the semester approaches, the stress of getting ready for class increases—is the syllabus updated? Are your adjunct faculty all scheduled and coordinated? Are your own lessons ready to go? As this list goes on, the likelihood of overlooking the goals for our course(s) grows.

To be goal-oriented with your healthcare education course means to have course objectives you want all students to meet … and then building your course to put all students in the best position to meet these objectives. These aren’t the learning objectives you set for each class meeting (there will be more on those later), but rather the information and/or skills students need to have mastered in preparation for their next set of courses. Never lose sight of where you’re trying to help get your student to next. Keeping these goals in mind will help guide your course building efforts, especially in times when stressful deadlines are fast approaching.

2. Communicate with Colleagues on Prior Student Knowledge

Just as our courses are focused on preparing students for the next level of their education, so too are the courses that proceed us. It’s vital that we know what our students have been taught prior to entering our classrooms. The two fastest ways to lose your audience is to teach redundant content or information that students aren’t in a position to learn yet  … which we all know equals a disengaged group of students that won’t retain information.

Not only should we communicate, but we should also do so efficiently. Enter your learning management system (LMS)—a quick check into the content from the prerequisite course(s) for your course will allow you to see what students were taught. Now, go one step further and look at the course goals and learning objectives (more on this in the next tip). Knowing the goals/objectives for other courses truly lets you know the focus of each course and lesson. Having this information will allow you to avoid those unwanted redundancies and/or lessons in which students are overwhelmed with new content they aren’t able to retain quite yet.

3. Map Your Learning Objectives

Ideally your institution uses a LMS that allows you to map your learning objectives. Not only is this a huge help in your accreditation prep process, but it also influences building a successful healthcare education course. Mapping your objectives allows you to ensure you’re covering the appropriate content in your course. We all have a role to play in helping our students through the curriculum in preparation for licensure exams and their healthcare careers. Knowing how our content and objectives map to the overall curricular efforts of our program will put our course in the best position to positively influence student performance. As with reviewing other courses’ objectives, mapping our own objectives will ensure we don’t have unplanned redundancies, or worse … content gaps in our teaching.

4. Plan to Actively Engage Students

Raise your hand if you or a colleague have commented about how different students are today than when you were in school.

[I have mine high in the air...which is unfortunately slowing down my typing at this moment.]

Students now have more options than ever before when it comes to their learning. So, if they don’t see a value in coming to class, they’re likely to skip class and get their content from somewhere else. Mandatory attendance isn’t the answer either—being physically present in class does not guarantee students will learn. Students who are only asked to be passive participants in a lecture are likely to zone out or find their way over a more entertaining website while they’re sitting in class.

This is why the teaching methods we use are so important. When we create class sessions in which students are actively engaged with course content, they learn and retain information at a higher rate. This increased engagement will enhance the student classroom experience, attendance, retention, and assessment scores … all leading to a more optimal course experience for faculty and students alike.

5. Create Assessments with a Purpose

Whether you’re assessing students with low stakes formative assessments or high stakes summative assessments, they should be created with the same attention to detail as your teaching methods. 

For the sake of this argument, let's focus on formative assessments. Throughout your course, students need to be afforded the opportunity to interact with content and then receive instructor feedback on their performance. We should never put students in a position where they are sitting for a summative exam without having a clear understanding of their performance in the course thus far. 

These formative assessments also serve as learning experiences—which is an important aspect to keep in mind when creating them. Too often, educators fall into the trap of making assessments that include trivial questions just to see if students actually completed their out-of-class assignments. If your formative assessments don’t reinforce key, foundational content that helps them actually continues the learning process, this is a disservice to your students. 

I always follow these 3 simple steps when creating my formative assessments:

  1. Using my learning objectives, identify the necessary information students need to master—focus my assessments to meet these objectives
  2. Include formative assessments in my classroom or online instruction (conversation, debate, quizzes, interactive self-paced modules, discussion board, etc.)
  3. Provide students feedback on their performance as quickly as possible, allowing them time to learn from the assessment

Following these easy steps, regardless of the assessment I’ve implemented, always serves as a valuable road map that keeps me focused on influencing improved student outcomes.

6. Provide Students Feedback as Frequently as Possible

Students at every level (especially those in healthcare education programs) should be given feedback on their performance, which provides opportunities for students to learn and improve from their assessments. Without this structured feedback, students can find themselves sitting for their first summative exam without truly grasping how well they know the content on which they’re about to be tested. Even more problematic, students may have a false sense of confidence when it comes to how well they understand course material. Without feedback from formative assessments, students may not realize what their struggling with until they’ve failed the midterm and are likely looking at failing the course overall.

Frequent feedback doesn’t always have to be one-on-one from faculty or an academic advisor. Taking a little time to add comments when posting grades or, at the very least, setting students up in groups to receive peer evaluation will go a long way in students’ self-awareness. This will ultimately allow them to address the areas in which they struggle so they can be more prepared for exams and future lessons.

7. Rely on Your Calendar

As an instructional designer, it was often my role to lead the charge of the educational technology we used in our programs. There can be real pressure in selecting the product that is going to be most useful for your faculty and students. In an effort to keep all stakeholders on the same page, we found that organizing our curricular efforts around a calendar-based system worked best. Since a calendar is such a familiar organizational tool, there is very little learning curve when it comes to basing your academic year around it. Having this foundational measure in place was exactly what we needed to set our course coordinators up for success. 

It’s far too easy to get caught in the day-to-day each semester and look beyond what needs to be done to create a successful course. By successful, of course, we’re talking about the one measure that matters most in our programs—student outcomes. These seven tips can provide the foundation needed to get you and your students where you all need to go.