The Heart of the Matter: Riding the Veterinary Learning Curve

Featured Blog by Denni O. Day

Any discussion of individual learning styles invariably conjures the age-old argument of nature versus nurture. I did not set out to solve that debate. Instead, I wanted to investigate the various teaching styles that a select group of practising veterinarians experienced during their years in veterinary school and how those styles shaped their thinking and, in some cases, influenced their career choices after graduation. That exercise gave me valuable insights applicable to the training of today’s investigators.

My starting point was a survey of 27 veterinarians currently employed in animal health companies, academic institutions, private veterinary clinics, governmental agencies, law firms, and industry groups. I was quite pleased that 13 of these 27 busy professionals responded and, collectively, mentioned 11 veterinary school professors. I next contacted those 11 professors (eight of whom are still teaching) and asked each of them a series of questions in hopes of discovering why they had made such a profound and lasting impression on their former students.

My questions were fairly simple and straightforward, but they elicited some very telling responses. Following are the questions I asked and, with permission, some of the answers I received. Please see Acknowledgements for the titles and professional affiliations of the respondents.

1. Why did you become a veterinarian?
Everyone noted that their interest in medicine and, in particular, veterinary medicine surfaced at any early age. Some were the children of veterinarians or human physicians, so that was an obvious influence. In some cases, a visceral love of animals was the determining factor. Dr Deborah Greco said, “I initially wanted to be a pediatrician because my first love was medicine, particularly diagnostic medicine.” However, when she reflected on her upbringing … ”dogs – every breed, every size – a dachshund guarded my cradle when I was a baby” … she realized that her true calling was helping children of the four-legged variety.

Dr Phillip Nelson also was influenced by his upbringing, but in a broader and different way. “I was raised in Mississippi, in the sixties, by a Tuskegee graduate. I felt the stigma of race and was keenly aware of the potential limitation of career opportunities. But I had a desire to improve my economic status. When I reflect on why I stuck with the choice, despite the counter-recommendations of mentors and counsellors, I must consider the possibility that I’m simply stubborn!”

2. Why did you decide to teach?
For some of the respondents, teaching had been a natural extension of their education. Others took a more circuitous route. For all, though, helping students grasp new and sometimes complex concepts was both the challenge and the reward of teaching. Dr Gregory Wolfus summarised the allure this way: “I have always enjoyed watching people around me as they gain an understanding. When you can see it in somebody’s eyes … that they get it … it fulfills me.”

Dr Joseph Bertone worked in private practice and at the FDA before teaching at several universities. “I realised that my most fulfilling times were in helping others achieve. Shouldn’t that be the goal of education? My goal is to get the student well beyond me.”

Dr Cynthia Ward believes that teaching “keeps me fresh in my discipline. I find it very rewarding to influence students’ careers. I love to inspire them to like what I find interesting.”

Like many other professors, Dr Susan Cotter enjoys the combination of teaching and clinical research. She finds that her students and research assistants are “smart, enthusiastic, and curious. I learn from them as I teach.”

Other professors truly enjoy teaching, but are disheartened by the lack of passion and dedication in many of today’s students. That shortcoming is disturbing enough to some that they leave teaching for industry, research, or private practice. “I wanted to share my knowledge and expertise with my students,“ laments Dr Greco, “but I also wanted them to have the same excitement for medicine, and endocrinology in particular, that I had as a student. Maybe that was my undoing because I ran into so many “entitled” students who were not enthusiastic about veterinary medicine.”

This frustration was shared by several of the other educators, who prefer to teach as they had been taught. They are disappointed when they encounter veterinary students who seem either ill-equipped or disinclined to handle a highly demanding curriculum. This lower workload tolerance has forced some instructors to adapt their teaching style to still challenge their students while not overwhelming them. Could this lower level of commitment to their learning affect the students ability to provide quality veterinary care in the future? That remains to be seen.

3. Did you work in a practice or industry before beginning your teaching career?
If yes, did that experience make you a better teacher … and why? Most of the respondents who had private-practice experience felt that it gave them a broader perspective and, indeed, made them a better teacher. As Dr George Saperstein suggested, “I could deliver the whole package to the students. It’s all about caring for people who care for animals.”

Dr Wolfus feels that his private-practice experience gives him greater credibility with students. “First, I not only can talk the talk; I also can walk the walk. Second, I have years of clinical wisdom. This knowledge gives me comfort with the uncertainty of medicine, something the inexperienced student lacks. Third, I am older and more calm than I used to be, which helps the students feel more comfortable. Lastly, I have learned client communication skills, which help me deal with stressful client events … and bail the students out when they’re struggling!”

For Dr Ward, working in a veterinary clinic taught her how to finesse multiple responsibilities. “I was in practice, and I do think it made me a better teacher. I understand how difficult it is when you need to do surgery, take radiographs, troubleshoot misbehaving chemistry machines, and … oh, by the way … also be a good doctor.”

4. Who was your favorite professor … and why?
The list of “favourites” was long and diverse, including professors from American, Canadian, and Australian schools. A few names were mentioned multiple times, and all are wellknown in their fields. The respondents’ reasons, however, were surprisingly consistent. All felt that the best professors were challenging and demanding task-masters. They also were inspiring and understanding educators who completely respected, patiently listened to, and truly cared for their students. Dr David Twedt noted that his favourite professor “went above the norm in teaching … and helping us learn … making it simplified.” That so many of the respondents seem to have adopted their mentors’ qualities in their professional lives is strong testament to the skill and dedication of their favourite teachers.

5. How would you describe your teaching style?
In answering this question, each professor put their own twist on the concept. Guide, facilitator, communicator, interrogator, even performer and entertainer, were some of the terms these educators used to describe their teaching styles. In essence, however, the intent of each style was the same. All were committed to helping their students master the material and understand how to apply it in the outside world.

After Dr Alexander de Lahunta completed his veterinary studies, he went into private practice. Within a couple of years, he was recruited by Cornell University to continue his education and, in 1963, received his PhD. He was then appointed assistant professor and began teaching courses in embryology and neuroanatomy. “After the first year of teaching the neuroanatomy course, I knew there had to be a better way to get the necessary attention of the student. That way was to correlate the anatomy to the clinical signs of disorders of that system.” Dr de Lahunta truly enjoyed interacting with his students, “encouraging them to ask questions no matter how simple they may have thought them to be. I tried my best to keep the lecture room atmosphere as collegial and fun as possible … we were in this together to learn what was necessary.”

This helpful, collaborative approach was employed by many of the other professors. Dr Nelson explained, “I am a facilitator of discovery and a guide through the entangling process of mastering new knowledge. Every student must personally struggle to internalise information. I can only provide a little structure in approach, demand rigour and accountability, and provide elucidation for the more difficult concepts. I seek to motivate the student to develop a functional knowledge of medical concepts. I do not focus on mere facts, though the student’s knowledge of them is essential. I challenge the student to apply the facts and concepts as they learn them in order to anticipate possible aberrations of what we think we know.”

Dr Greco described her former teaching style as “improvisational and enthusiastic.” Her method of using acting skills in the classroom taught her “how to communicate, speak to an audience, and prepare for a performance.”

Dr Cotter added the importance of personal example by being a role model to her students. “I try to provide the best care for patients, while keeping the perspective of the client always in mind.”

6. How do you determine each student’s learning style … and how do you accommodate the differences, if at all?
Many of the professors thought that this was nearly impossible. “With a class of 140 students, there’s no way to do that and stay sane,” asserted Dr Greco. For those who teach large classes, it is difficult, at best, to know much more than each student’s name. So, most make assumptions and, based on their experiences with past classes and previous students, try to present the material in a way that they think will meet the needs of the majority of the students. Often, they attempt to present an open and welcoming demeanour and then rely on each individual student to request help with anything they find difficult.

Dr Nelson described tests that his school administers to all first-year students which analyse their personality and learning skills. “Most of the test results are primarily for each student’s use. Our curriculum allows the student to use this information to structure the most appropriate academic support system for themselves. This also allows individual faculty members to respond accordingly, provided that course rigour and student accountability are not significantly compromised.”

So, what lessons can we draw from these responses that might lead to more effective study training? In Part 2 of this series, I will give you my thoughts, as well as share some interesting and humorous stories from these professors. Before ending, though, I will tell you that all of the professors believed that they were successful only when the students had learned the material in a way that allowed them to apply it effectively in the real world after graduation. Only then will the health and wellbeing of our four-legged friends be enhanced. And that is the heart of the matter!

Acknowledgements: I sincerely thank the following distinguished veterinary professionals for their generous contributions of time and thought.

Joseph J. Bertone, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Professor Equine Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University of Health Sciences

Susan M. Cotter, DVM, DACVIM, Distinguish Professor of Clinical Sciences Emeritus, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Alexander de Lahunta, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVP, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University (retired)

David C. Dorman, DVM, PhD, DABVT, ATS, Professor of Toxicology, College of Veterinary Medicine, North Carolina State University

Deborah S. Greco, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, Senior Research Scientist, Nestle Purina Petcare

Phillip Nelson, DVM, PhD, Dean, Professor Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University of Health Sciences

George Saperstein, DVM, Amelia Peabody Professor of Agricultural Science, Chair, Department of Environmental and Population Health, Director of Contract Research, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University (retired)

David C. Twedt, DVM, DACVIM, Professor, Small Animal Medicine, Department of Clinical Sciences, Colorado State University

Cynthia R. Ward, VMD, PhD, DACVIM, Professor of Internal Medicine, Chief Medical Officer, Small Animal, College of Veterinary Medicine, The University of Georgia

Michael D. Willard, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Professor, Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

Gregory M. Wolfus, DVM, Director, Tufts at Tech Community Clinic, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University