A few years ago, I was hired to teach Medical Terminology to Internationally Educated Nurses (IENs) despite the fact that my background education was Psychology, not nursing, and that I had been teaching English to mostly high school students for the previous 17 years. Naturally I had to learn the language that I had to teach, as well as all the parts of the body, diseases, clinical diagnoses, and machines used. I was given 2 weeks to prepare a 12 week course, full of information I had yet to comprehend. This was when I realized just how important making connections between what I was now learning to teach, and what I already knew through life experiences, was going to get me through.
When activating prior learning to make sense of something new, the brain searches for any past learnings that are similar to, or associated with, the new learning.” (Barkley, 2010, p. 19). By going through my memories of past medical traumas and other related events or my own and of others around me (of which thankfully there have been many!), and even some of the weird and wonderful stories I read online every morning before class, I realized that I had a plenitude of life experiences and outside knowledge that related to the majority of the body systems that I was to be teaching.
As I studied anatomy, and reviewed the diseases and disorders, I found the influx of new information was much more easily assimilated because I had a framework to which I could attach it. There isn’t a topic or question that comes up in class that I don’t have an anecdote for. This greatly impresses my students, especially when they research it later on their own and realize that the information is true! Many students have told me that much later when they were writing their NCLEX or CRNE (both nursing exams for Registered Nurses), that they could easily recall many of the stories I had told them about and that it helped them remember the correct information for questions on their exams which resulted in passing grades.
I found this strategy worked well with learning Latin and Greek too. And as I had spent the previous 17 years already teaching English, I had everyday words to which foreign students were familiar with, and was able to relate them to both Greek and Latin roots, making understanding of complex medical terms easy for the students to draw connections to. For example the word parameter, which can be broken into para- meaning around or surrounding, and meter- for measuring. It made understanding medical words with the same language parts that much easier to remember.
Studying in this way may not seem unique to Westerners, but for my Asian students this was a new way of learning that they had never been exposed to before. In a study conducted by Frambach, et. al. (2012), it was noted that the secondary school education system in Hong Kong is very much based on knowledge acquisition and rote learning to pass examinations. (p. 744) However, testing that is done in nursing colleges does not correspond to this style of learning, as questions posed are situation based on possible scenarios or complicated situations that involve a certain degree of problem-solving and intuition, and therefore require more problem based learning than rote-studying.
In my class, it is imperative that I begin to transition students from Asia and Middle Eastern countries away from the instructor and textbook as being the main sources of information as soon as I can. By leading the students into ‘casual’ conversations where I can relate information in the form of a story, which directly relates to the information we are studying, provides them a framework onto which they can attach this new information.
By providing humor and fun, it allows for an overall feeling of enjoyment rather than learning, and the new information quickly gets integrated into their existing framework of knowledge and memories in a number of different ways. By sharing my own personal stories, students soon warm up and want to start sharing their own knowledge, experiences, and ideas with others as well. By allowing for them to make new connections to their schemata, by connecting new ideas, and concepts, through their retelling of stories with new language, it greatly strengthens their understanding of the information they are learning and greatly affects their ability to recall this information later on from these personal events.
As my students cram a 12 – 18 month course into an 18 week time frame, promoting this deep, long-term learning and knowledge to become quickly solidified by creating these connections to as many previous memories as possible, enables them consolidate this vast amount of information in a relatively short period of time. In all honesty, I don’t think my class would be nearly as successful as it is, without teaching them to draw on their previous schemata as I do.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques - A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Frambach, J. M., Driessen, E. W., Chan, L., & van der Vleuten, C. P. M. (2012). Rethinking the globalisation of problem-based learning: how culture challenges self-directed learning. Medical Education: 46: 738 – 747