What I learnt at the Cambridge Veterinary School

I recently arrived back from a school trip to the UK. Part of the rationale for this trip is to broaden students’ horizons and increase awareness of the study and work options that are available.

On Monday of last week, we visited the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University. We had an excellent lecture from Dr Mark Holmes on the use of DNA sequencing to isolate the source of MRSA outbreaks and then toured the facilities, one of which was the clinical skills lab.

A clinical skills lab is an apparently innovative idea that has been imported from medical schools. Vet students are able to attend at any time and practise key skills such as suturing or using a pulse monitor. There is also a haptic cow’s backside that students can use to conduct virtual internal examinations. While we were there, two trainee vets popped in to practise naming various clamps and retractors.

The skills start off simple. For instance, students might begin learning a skill by simply using the relevant tool to manipulate objects on a desk in front of them. Suturing takes place using a specially designed pad, again on a desk. Once they have mastered the basic skill of suturing, students can move on to completing it on an uneven surface or at an odd angle such as bending down to suture a horse’s leg – there is a prototype full-sized model horse available for this. The advantage of using a model at this stage is that the students don’t have to consider the possibility of being kicked by the horse; something that they can focus on once they meet their first real horse after they have mastered all of these underlying skills.

This process is in line with the implications of cognitive load theory which would suggest that we need to manage the number of new things that a student has to attend to at any one time. You might also see it as a common sense or even ‘obvious’ approach. If so, I ask you to reflect the fact that it is viewed as innovative.

What would a skills lab approach to teaching maths look like? It would involve training students on the component parts before presenting them with complex problems to solve. What would be the common objection to this? Educationalists might claim that it was inauthentic; that, instead, students should be experiencing rich, contextualised problems from the outset.

This is, of course, the equivalent of learning how to suture on a real-life injured horse while risking getting kicked in the guts.

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