Story by Annie Soisson, Photo by Joanie Tobin
In the past several years there has been an increased interest in outcomes assessment of student learning, moving away from grades and other indirect indicators of learning and toward demonstration of skills and knowledge. At Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, they have been working toward the latter.
Dr. Scott Shaw recently took me on a whirlwind tour of the Foster Hospital for Small Animals and the Hospital for Large Animals in Grafton. Complete with an emergency room, surgical facilities, ICU and equine recovery facility, these are full scale operations. During our tour, Dr. Shaw described his many roles at the veterinary school. He was awarded his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) at Tufts in 1998, and returned in 2002 as a member of the faculty. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences / Emergency Critical Care, has a half-time clinical appointment, runs a small lab for clinical research on hemostasis and conducts research on infection control.
Shaw also chairs the Outcomes Assessment Committee which includes the Dean for Research, the Dean of Academic Affairs and the Dean of Student Affairs. The committee meets once a month and works closely with Dawn Terkla, Tufts’ Associate Provost for Institutional Research and Evaluation. The school has always conducted its own informal assessment, but in recent years, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has encouraged veterinary schools to conduct more formal outcomes assessment (http://www.avma.org/education/cvea/coe_pp.pdf), asking the question “How can you prove that your students are practice worthy?” “The dental profession has been asked to do this for years, but it is relatively new to the veterinary school,” says Shaw.
The committee structures its assessment work around nine competencies established by the AVMA. Though the impetus for doing thorough assessment comes from outside groups for accreditation and licensure, Cummings has taken it a step further. After mapping out the skills each graduate should master by examining the senior year rotations, they narrowed the nine AVMA competencies down to seven that they believe fit the Tufts program. These seven competencies range from providing “an understanding of the central biological principles and mechanisms that underlie animal health and disease from the molecular and cellular level to organismal and population manifestations” to developing “opportunities for students to learn how to acquire information from clients (e.g. history) and about patients (e.g. medical records), to obtain, store and retrieve such information, and to communicate effectively with clients and colleagues.” In designing its assessment strategy, the committee needs to review every element of each course and examine the details of clinical rotations and all supervised activities to ascertain what might need to be added, changed or eliminated in the curriculum to fulfill these competencies.
Conducting such a comprehensive assessment is not simple. “The biggest challenge we have as faculty is time! The hospital runs 52 weeks a year and we are all doing research, sitting on committees and teaching. We have 13 core rotations, which means that 13 groups of faculty are supervising students in the areas of small animal medicine and surgery, ambulatory care, wildlife, emergency critical care and large animal medicine and surgery.” At the same time, the committee is carefully assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum and implementing change as needed.
There are always a number of milestones in such a large undertaking. For the past three years, Cummings has administered an assessment that is intended to help the committee pinpoint key areas for strengthening the curriculum. “We started with the short term goal ofestablishing a third and fourth year test which we thought represented what students should know at this point in their education.” The school just completed the third test cycle this spring, a significant milestone in the assessment process. The results are now being used to help rotation directors identify areas for improvement.
Because of the time constraints, innovation is key. “One of the challenges we faced was how to follow what students were doing when they were in their clinical exposures. We developed electronic case logs on TUSK that allow faculty to see what students are working on in the fourth year, what procedures they are actually learning and so on. Because you can’t guarantee, for example, that a baby giraffe will be at the hospital, or what other cases will present themselves necessarily, it is important for us to know what our students have been exposed to, and where there might be gaps.”
Shaw reports “We are now in the process of revising the curriculum. We have asked the curriculum committee for input, and the rotation directors have seen it. We look at this as a living document – not something static, and we know that it will change over time.” It is a complex and time-consuming process for a veterinary school to fulfill its mission, to meet the standards of the AVMA, ensure that students are able to pass the national boards, and generate veterinarians who are “practice worthy,” but this committee is making thoughtful, steady progress in that direction.