May 2021

The findings of the research project entitled ‘The effect of pharmacology teaching on diverse learners in a problem-based learning medical curriculum (PharmPBL)’ were recently presented at the virtual International Conference for Medical Education (ICME). The aim of ICME 2021 was to provide an international forum for researchers and scholars to share their experiences, innovations and best practice in educational research and health professions education. The oral presentation, which was delivered by the Project Coordinator Dr Soulla Nicolaou, Associate Professor in Pharmacology at the UNIC Medical School, was well-received and won ‘Best presentation’ in its session; the theme of the session was ‘Peer-assisted learning/Problem-based learning’.

The project is funded by the Cyprus Research and Innovation Foundation under the Excellence Hubs (EXCELLENCE/0918). The project consortium consists of researchers from UNIC and St George’s, University of London (SGUL). The UNIC team of researchers include Dr Soulla Nicolaou, Prof Peter McCrorie, Dr Stella Nicolaou, Prof Alexia Papageorgiou, and Dr Ioulia Televantou, and the SGUL team comprises of Prof Anthony Alberts and Dr Andrew Hitchings.

The project aims to understand whether the problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum, taught concurrently at both universities, is able to satisfy the learning needs of a diverse student population. With students from a wide range of backgrounds, learning styles, and study processes, the research team aimed to find out if this might impact learning of pharmacology in pre-clinical years and subsequently affect the acquisition of prescribing skills in clinical years. The study is carried out in Years 1, 2 and 4 in the MBBS programme. The project coordinator presented the findings in Year 1 students at ICME 2021.

The study examined the results of well-constructed pharmacology exams and looked at differences across the groups to see if any particular characteristics might have an effect on learning at the beginning and at the end of the year. The results showed that pharmacology teaching in a PBL-based curriculum may be effective for diverse learners, independently of age, previous experience with PBL, educational background, language and academic ability. Interestingly, significant correlations were identified with approach to learning and learning style. Specifically, surface learning, i.e. learning via rote memorization of main points, was predictive of lower performance at the pharmacology pre-test at the beginning of the year but this correlation was not significant at the post-test at the end of the year, suggesting that surface learners also benefited from the PBL-based curriculum. The kinaesthetic learning style, i.e. learning by taking on an active role in the learning process and by hands-on experience, was associated with better performance in the post-test, independent of academic ability, suggesting that kinaesthetic learners may benefit to a greater extend from PBL. Prior knowledge in pharmacology was also an important predictor of pharmacological knowledge at the end of the first year since students who performed better at the pre-test also performed better at the post-test.

The study is ongoing and is currently being repeated in Year 1 students and is continuing in Year 2 and Year 4 students to elucidate the effect of a PBL-based curriculum on the development of prescribing skills. It is expected that the findings of the study will subsequently inform changes to the curriculum to better support student learning in pharmacology. Ultimately, the project aims at better preparing medical students to become effective and safe prescribers, which could contribute to reducing medication errors, which compromise patient safety and increase health care costs.