Optometry school is not easy. It challenges students to work hard, grasp a large amount of information, apply this information, and do so by maintaining a heavy course load, clinical skills, and a personal life.  In the first year of optometry school, students take foundational courses to prepare them for the next three years.  Much information, some complex and confusing, is thrown at them.  Through lecture and PowerPoint presentations, students learn and take notes and then spend hours reviewing and studying for the next big examination.

When Dr. Erin Brooks (O.D. ’11, Masters in Vision Science ‘13) stepped into the classroom for the first time as the Anatomy, Physiology and Disease Processes(APD) instructor in 2016, she quickly discovered that students were not following what she was saying about the gastrointestinal track.  In an attempt to improve understanding, Brooks stepped outside the box of classic lecture and PowerPoint and decided to create a live and interactive demonstration on the topic.

While developing the script for the demonstration, many thoughts ran through Dr. Brooks’ mind.  “I was nervous about doing something that seemed so elementary school, but I realized I could take some difficult concepts and make them easier to understand,” commented Brooks.   Since her first demonstration in 2016, the model has grown and expanded to other topics.  This year, 41 students played various roles in the demonstration.  All the roles were chosen based on names so students could remember what role their classmates played. According to Dr. Brooks, “This just makes it more likely they will remember some of the information long-term.”

Brooks color coded different hormones or cells, laminated them, and then asked students to wear colored shirts to match the role or roles that they were going to play.  By doing this Dr. Brooks explained it “helps to reinforce their overall learning.”  The reception from students was positive. First year student Kyle Carnahan was impressed by the demonstration: “Dr. Brooks does a great job of engaging students by making learning an active process. By turning the mechanisms that are present in the body into short plays, we are better able to visualize the interactions that are occurring in these intricate systems. Her ability to teach the material in a variety of ways makes learning easier and more fun for the students no matter their preferred learning style.”

Active learning and engagement is one of many learning styles.  Having students actively participate in demonstrations that reinforce learning could work well in other courses.  As Dr. Brooks reflected back on her first year as an instructor and conducting this demonstration she recalled, “Several students felt it was very helpful.  One student even remarked about being surprised that something they thought was so stupid was actually very helpful.” Every year, she continues to refine the demonstrations and has expanded into other topics including the kidney and the nervous system.  The active learning helps students to acquire the information—it is often an “a-ha” moment.  “This is especially important for pharmacology in which some of the drugs we discussed will be covered, and they need to retain the mechanism of action for long-term learning,” Brooks said.

The majority of the information students receive during the first two years of optometry school becomes part of the material needed to prepare for part I of the NBEO exam. “This year, I have heard of several instances where students were studying for classes or boards and recalled their role or a classmate’s role from the demonstration back in first year,” commented Brooks.   Current first year, Stephen Wells, loved the demonstration: “I loved the interactive experience that Dr. Brooks did for the GI system. It was a nice change of pace to get out of the classroom and run around for a little bit. It helped me visualize better what each cell secretes and what receptor those secretions bind to next. She even color coded everything and assigned students to specific roles based on their names to help us remember everything easier. I was the Pancreas and had to squeeze Brad Cary (Bicarb) out of the Duodenal Papillia (Kai Davis). It was quite the sight! Couldn’t ask for a better way to learn it all.”

Engaging students through active learning helps students absorb and apply information they learn in lecture. For Dr. Brooks, her role is to prepare them for boards, future courses, and for patient care.  She plans to add smaller demonstrations to her courses over the next few years to promote active learning for the students at the College of Optometry.  “If I can help students remember complex and difficult topics through these demonstrations, I will continue to add them to my courses.”

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