Learning can go beyond traditional classroom

Here are some innovative teaching ideas

Sometimes, the best teaching strategy is one in which the student is not even aware that he or she is a student.

At least that’s the approach that one research educational program has tried and found to be successful.

"What I find useful in these situations is to try to recruit investigators to be instructors," says Ruth Fischbach, PhD, MPE, director of the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University in New York City.

"So they’ll do their homework in preparing to teach, and this is a helpful strategy," she notes.

Educational content and approach should be tailored to the student audience, and with human subjects protection the audience can vary between medical students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, IRB members, investigators, clinical trials staff, and others, Fischbach says.

"Often you overestimate what you think people know," she says. "So ask each group some basic questions to assess where they’re at, and then base your teaching and education from there."

Determine knowledge gaps

Another issue is attracting principal investigators to educational seminars when they may not see that as a priority. One way to do this is to hold faculty development sessions that cover the latest changes in regulations or practice, Fischbach says.

"Most recently, we’ve had a successful conference at Harlem Hospital, supported by a National Institutes of Health [NIH] grant ward, to look at privacy, confidentiality, and conflicts of interest as relevant to an inner-city population," she says. "We invited Harlem faculty to be instructors, and we had lectures and workshops where the topics were coordinated."

This way, attendees would hear a lecturer speak about a specific topic and then have an opportunity to discuss it and relate it to their own situations during the workshop that followed the lecture, Fischbach notes.

During the workshops, participants would teach each other.

"Often someone there would say, I just had that happen last week, so how did you resolve that?’" Fischbach recalls. "So it would be a real workshop without just having people sitting around listening."

The workshops would use overhead devices and educational aids, and even include situations in which workshop participants could instantly vote through a handheld device on which they could select answers to questions or problems that are presented, she notes.

"You could ask a question of what they thought is the limit of equity holdings that a principal investigator can hold before having to disclose it to the IRB based on the NIH regulations, and then have participants select an answer," Fischbach explains.

Based on how many participants had the correct answer, the workshop educator could provide more or less instruction on this issue, she adds.

"This is a good strategy for getting people to talk, and if interesting issues come up they can bring what they learned home and discuss it over the family dinner," Fischbach says.

It’s also important to vary the way education is handled in order to keep it timely, interesting, and effective.

At UCLA, one of the ways researchers are kept up to date on new policies and other timely information is through newsletters, says Steven Peckman, associate director for human subjects research at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).

Another educational approach is to hold small group sessions in which participants sit in a circle and discuss their current research, he says.

"A large group can’t do that," Peckman notes. "We’re focusing on group needs rather than a one-size-fits-all program."

Some alternative educational strategies used at Columbia University Center for Bioethics include showing films, followed by a discussion, Fischbach notes.

Films might include PBS shows on research or short takes that were created to illustrate research ethical dilemmas, she says.

Provide quick updates

"One thing that faculty have to be aware of is that if you continually provide educational experiences that are very boring, that are meaningless and not relevant to what people are doing then you will turn off your learners so fast, and the next time you have a session people will be very reluctant to come," Fischbach says.

At UCLA, research educational updates are coordinated with each department, Peckman reports.

"The department keeps track of what is going on with the research portfolio and tells us which things they need and want us to come over to talk about," he says.

"Often, we’ll see trends and try to be helpful," Peckman says.

For instance, one common problem is assuring appropriate compliance with the privacy regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), he notes.

"HIPAA applications are not being filled out with enough information for IRBs to make decisions, and that’s delaying projects," Peckman says.

Also, the biggest area of confusion nationally involves the recruitment of subjects and the confidentiality of medical records, he says.

"Investigators who are not involved in the care of a patient do not have the legal authority to go through medical records in order to identify and recruit subjects," Peckman says. "Just because they’re a physician does not give them the right to do this, and there’s a risk of a breach of patient confidentiality if they do it."

These issues should be covered in educational sessions designed to provide updates to investigators and to prevent some of the more common problems.

"Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have to deal with the issues coming out today," Peckman notes. "The research field is changing, and the way we look at it ethically, philosophically, and legally also is changing."