2014 MAVLT Symposium – Innovative Learning and Teaching: The Why and The How


The Melbourne Academy of Veterinary Learning and Teaching (MAVLT) formed in 2013 as a group of teaching academics within the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne who wanted to share their passion and knowledge of veterinary education. The Academy hosted their first learning and teaching symposium on December 3rd and 4th 2014. The event was a great success with over 100 attendees, many from interstate and overseas. The vibe was brilliant throughout, with the engagement and collegiality palpable both in the formal sessions and the lovely reception area and garden used for breaks.

The program is available from the MAVLT website. Presentations were largely in three major themes: assessment, curriculum structure and approaches to teaching, although several talks fell outside these categories. As it is impractical for me to cover the entire event, I have chosen to review four presentations I found particularly thought-provoking. If you would like further details from any session please leave a comment to that effect.

1. Dr Liz Norman (Massey University) – Making space for innovation in veterinary teaching

Many innovative teaching ideas have recently been integrated in veterinary curricula. While there is no doubt that these have improved student learning and engagement, Liz posed a very important and oft-overlooked question – how do we decide what to leave out to balance our inclusions in order to prevent student overload?

What happens when students are overloaded?

Failure to maintain this balance leads to student overload which results in interrelated undesirable outcomes such as:

  • Superficial learning
  • Failure to make adequate connections between related parts of the curriculum
  • Inability to differentiate relevant and irrelevant material

What factors contribute to workload?

Liz then made us think about what factors make up workload. Some aspects are obvious, for example class time and independent study. Less obvious are factors such as:

  • Average reading speed, particularly taking into account the extra challenge this can be for students with English as an additional language
  • Extra time taken for group work, for example time for negotiation of work distribution
  • Preparation and organisation time, for example downloading notes from the LMS

Perception of overload

This may be very different for students and staff

Liz identified factors which influence perception of workload and ways we can decrease the perception without changing the actual amount of work. These include:

  • Aligning assessment practices with learning activities
  • Spacing deadlines across subjects
  • Setting clear guidelines for tasks and allowing time for questions
  • Increasing peer-peer and student-staff interaction

Key message

When designing innovations, be mindful of the effect they have on student perceptions of workload. Allow them the space in the curriculum they need to achieve their full benefit.

 2. Dr Chi Baik (University of Melbourne) – Is there a role for the lecture in professional degrees?

Chi’s opening comment was that she had given different versions of this presentation many times and that we may not be pleased with what she was about to say.

Debating the benefit of lectures
There are many arguments both for and against inclusion of lectures in educational programs. One factor in favour I hadn’t heard before but which struck a chord was that lectures exploit the evolutionary strengths of learning by hearing material in a social situation, the main method of learning for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Others were more familiar, such as the opinion of supporters that there are advantages of learning from personal experiences of the lecturer and the concern from naysayers that lack of engagement with lectures tends to result in surface approaches to learning.

Benefit of lectures depends on quality

Chi’s argument was that although lectures by themselves are insufficient to provide required knowledge and skills, a good quality lecture can be a key component of a professional education program, facilitating understanding of complex concepts and modelling effective thinking.
Contrary to her expectation, many in the audience were relieved to hear support for the lecture. Chi’s challenge was for us to deliver lectures which lead to active student engagement. Ways to improve quality include learning to adapt the teaching approach to the audience and peer review.

Key message

High quality lectures are an important component of a professional education.
3. Dr Cathy Beck (University of Melbourne) – Visual arts in health education

Radiographic interpretation requires a mixture of perception (recognising a finding) and cognitive skill (interpreting the finding and recognising the implications). Study of the visual arts to improve visual observation is widely employed in medical education programs, including the University of Melbourne’s Visual Arts in Health Education Program, but has not previously been included in veterinary education.

Pilot study investigating potential benefits of including visual arts into veterinary education
Cathy teamed up with Dr Heather Gaunt from the Ian Potter Museum to conduct a pilot study to investigate the adaptation of the existing Visual Arts in Health Education Program to third year DVM students to improve visual observation skills and confidence in radiographic interpretation. The vast majority of DVM3 students who volunteered to be involved with the study reported increased confidence in the ability to interpret radiographs after participating in the pilot seminar session.

Experiencing a visual arts education
After reconvening at the Ian Potter Museum and being plied with drinks and nibbles, we had the opportunity to become students in a visual arts class. Dr Heather Gaunt walked us through observation and interpretation of the multiple aspects of two large murals depicting different stages of Australian history.  Each table then had a photograph of a painting, such as one above by Albrecht Dürer, with at least one animal in it, which we studied and reported on to the group. It was fabulous to have this rare chance to dabble in the visual arts and very interesting to see the variation in perception and interpretation across the group. It gave me an appreciation of how this type of training could enhance diagnostic imaging skills.

Key message

Exposure to a well-designed visual arts education program has the potential to benefit patients through improved interpretation of diagnostic imaging studies.
4. Dr Liz Norman (Massey University) – The concept of veterinary competence: Perspectives and challenges

What constitutes competence?
While development of competence is clearly a key outcome of a veterinary education, reaching agreement on exactly what constitutes competence is surprisingly difficult. Ability to perform required technical skills is clearly part of competence but other attributes such as teamwork skills and respect for other are less obvious elements. Achieving consensus on essential elements still leaves the thorny issue of how to objectively assess competence.

Behavioural aspects of competence
Liz pointed out that competence is at least partly behavioural. Similar behaviours can be perceived as positive or negative by different assessing clinicians in different contexts. For example there may be different expectations of empathy in the small animal setting compared with food animal practice. Additional complications include:

Whether the complex interplay of factors making up competence can be assessed in parts, as is commonly done in the name of improving objectivity, or should be viewed in a holistic manner.

Whether assessment in some circumstances should be of a team or an individual as either can be competent or incompetent within the other e.g. a team may complete a task competently without all members performing to the required standard.

Is competence part of identity?
Another new concept for me from Liz’s talk was that of competency as identity. Is competency how we behave or is it more intrinsic than that? If it is, should we talk about competency in terms of being rather than or as well as doing? If the being aspect is important, we need to be particularly mindful of the way we socialise students into the profession throughout their training, a facet often developed through the hidden curriculum rather than overt teaching.

This was a very wide-ranging discussion which clearly set the audience thinking about the complexities of the topic. I’m sure many more discussions will follow.

Key message

Competency and its assessment is a complex topic and will continue to evolve as we learn more about it.

Symposium to become a biannual event

It was great to learn that the symposium will be a biannual event, with the next to be held in the first week of December 2016. Next year there will be a Ruminant Teaching Workshop held at the University of Melbourne in early December.


About rebekahmcbrown

I am a veterinarian with a special interest in instructional design and developing eLearning in the veterinary and medical areas. I write teaching materials for both face-to-face and online learning as well as writing and editing articles.
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