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The “Golden Rules” of Truly Purposeful Educational Design (and how to embrace them!)

Looking back at nearly a decade of training as an academic research scientist, I have come to hold one truth above all else: the most important lesson a scientist learns is how to approach one’s curiosity in a structured way – asking questions and challenging common understanding is essential to growing as a scientist – but you must be methodical in how you go about your exploration. This is how careers are made, how science evolves, and how real breakthroughs emerge.

Having spent the past fifteen years studying medical education, I’d argue that being an educator is no different: the “Golden Rule” and most important lesson an educator learns is how to approach one’s design and planning in a structured way – asking questions and challenging common approaches is essential to growing as an educator – but you must be organized and methodical in how you go about your work.

Ask questions, be methodical

There are two critical elements baked within the “Golden Rule” – 1) asking question/challenging common approaches means that an educator should never accept that the status quo is the optimal approach (or even acceptable) and 2) being methodical about what should/could change and what results from the planned changes is the best path towards success.shutterstock_317617661_golden rules_small

Understanding how to look beyond the status quo is no simple matter, experience suggests that not everyone is comfortable asking tough questions, challenging conventional wisdom, or changing established processes; and not every workplace or culture empowers such questions or curiosity. This is a challenge that I will try to tackle in a separate post – for now let’s assume curiosity is alive and well and that your question has already been identified….now what do you do?

Stepping back a bit…

Educators are tasked with creating impact (i.e., changes in knowledge/performance, etc…) through education. In this vein, volumes have been written on how gap analyses, needs assessments, learning objectives, adult learning theory, and outcomes models are essential tools of this work – but little has been written about how these tools are most effectively and most methodically applied in practice.

To prove this point, my guess is that most educational professionals can point to books on needs assessment (Example 1), or guidelines on writing learning objectives (Example 2), or even meta-reviews on adult learning theory or outcomes models (Example 3), but few can point to examples of how these tools are applied over time.

How do you systematically approach each tool and ‘test’ whether it impacts the impact you intended?

How do you demonstrate in your educational practice/setting that you are making the optimal design choices and generating the greatest impact given all available resource?

It seems that, accepting the “Golden Rule”, what is missing from the decades of literature on educational planning, design, implementation, and assessment is the ‘methodical’ piece – how can we execute on our plans AND ensure that we are intelligently advancing the profession of medical education?

Here is my simple, yet critical suggestion: Much like an academic research scientist documents each step in the scientific method – question, intervention, conditions, data, analysis – an educational designer should meticulously document each step in their educational planning process. In short, an educational designer should commit to keeping a lab notebook!

Your Lab Notebook

As a bit of background, stored away in my basement I have more than a dozen lab notebooks much like the one pictured above, many dating back to the 1990’s. These notebooks document every experiment I ever conducted as a research scientist. The notebooks allowed me to document each step in the exploration from planning, to alignment with prior research, to step-by-step details of the interventions, to data, to analysis and conclusions – as a research scientist my lab notebooks were the scaffolding for my thoughts, my efforts, and my findings.Lab Notebooks

As an educator, I have moved on to a digital notebook – I use Evernote – that similarly documents my questions, the alignment with prior research, my interventional opportunities, any known limitations, and my data, analyses, and conclusions.

Leveraging Your Lab Notebook

By thinking about each of your educational design decisions as an opportunity to learn something new – as an experiment – and by methodically documenting these decisions within your lab notebook, you will quickly recognize how often subtle variables or decisions lead to, or undermine, the success of your interventions!

For example, at ArcheMedX we partner with dozens of academic medical centers, national medical societies, and medical education companies that use our software, learning models, and novel data to improve the educational interventions that they plan, design, and implement – each Partner and each project therefore may be seen as a separate experiment. Connecting these experiments ensures that the educational experiences that are provided to Learners from around the world are constantly improving and my lab notebook helps me connect these dots.

  • How can I demonstrate that the ArcheViewer drives greater completion rates = experiment!
  • How can I prove the effectiveness of the ArcheViewer in different audiences = experiment!
  • Can the Learning Actions Model allow for agile activity enhancements = experiment!
  • What is the optimal number/form of designed learning moments = experiment!

To be clear, it can be a challenge to identify a specific element in each project that may be ‘studied’ or documented. But when the circumstances present themselves – and when I convince our Partners that they have a unique opportunity to collect data that might address a research question – I will commit to documenting these ‘experiments’ within my notebook.

In the end, I see my lab notebook as an incredibly critical mirror that ensures that I don’t lose touch with the impact I am having or could be having on the science of medical education. And my belief is that if are willing to accept the Golden Rule, then you’ll quickly come to see the value of your lab notebook too!

Written by

Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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