Comparing and contrasting diseases is an effective way to learn
At Salter College’s West Boylston campus in Massachusetts, Dr. Phillip Wong teaches an “Anatomy and Physiology” class in the Medical Assisting program that involves more than just lectures and discussion. Dr. Wong requires that each of his students does research on two diseases and then make a presentation to the class about what they’ve learned. “It’s a truly engaged kind of learning,” Dr. Wong says, “that provides the students with new approaches to the subject matter.”
The assignment not only supports students in practicing their oral presentation skills, says Dr. Wong, but it also engages their critical thinking, as they get to know the similarities and differences between the two pathologies. He has students choose their own topics, which he approves.
MA student Matthew Cloutier, a member of Dr. Wong’s class, recently decided to focus on multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease—both neurological diseases affecting the autoimmune system. Matthew started the MA program at Salter College two years ago, and then took some time off before returning six months ago. He grew up in the area and lives nearby in Auburn, MA.
“I know people with MS,” Matthew says, “so I started looking into other diseases that seemed to relate. I noticed that with Parkinson’s, there were some interesting similarities and differences, so I worked these into my PowerPoint presentation.”
Matthew was interested to learn about the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, and how its absence contributed to Parkinson’s, whereas for MS patients, how the myelin sheaths around nerve cells are destroyed. “I came to see the signs of both diseases and why they occur,” he says. “The experience gave me more insight into MS, especially. Now, when I talk to people I know who have it, I understand more of the science, and don’t just see the symptoms.”
Dr. Wong, who likes to challenge his students to think in new ways, has noticed that the assignment inspires the students to understand the diseases more thoroughly. “They must be more specific in their research,” he says. “And their ability to take in the information increases, which is useful to them later on in the higher-level classes, which tackle subjects that are even more complicated.”
Looking at disease from a broader perspective
Dr. Wong asks students to focus on the causes and symptoms in their presentations, as well as any diagnostic tests, the prognosis for a patient who is diagnosed, and any available treatments. He encourages students to go through a process of looking up articles about one disease, taking notes, and then doing the same for the second disease. “Then they are in the position to make comparisons,” Wong says. He also asks them to brainstorm and to come up with ideas for how to present the information, in terms of visual aids and graphics.
Dr. Wong invites the students to consider the genetic as well as environmental factors that contribute. Matthew learned that Parkinson’s disease is more prevalent in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, and especially among Hispanic and Asian individuals. With MS, he found out that it was more common in individuals who lived farther away from the equator. “And women between the ages of 20 and 50 are more likely to get MS,” Matthew says.
“We also talk with the students about how an individual’s socioeconomic status can be a factor in what diseases they may be vulnerable to,” adds Dr. Wong, “given that the conditions where they are living can contribute. A Medical Assistant needs to be able to think about diseases in these ways.”
Matthew feels passionately that people in general should learn more about a disease like MS, especially so that those who suffer from it can do all they can to stop its progression. “This is an opportunity to educate myself as well as any future patients I might have,” he says.
Overcoming stage fright
Wong knows that the experience of getting up in front of the class and making a presentation is an important one. He says some students are apprehensive or even anxious about talking in front of a group of people—even ones they know relatively well. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get some practice,” Wong says. “I notice that, over time, after making several presentations, students get better at speaking comfortably. It’s exciting to see them progress.”
Wong sees a direct connection between this skill and the students’ ability to succeed professionally, since they can draw upon this experience when they go for interviews, or when they need to speak during staff meetings.
Matthew says that, before making this presentation, he had not had much experience speaking in front of people in a formal way. “It was kind of nerve wracking at first,” he says, “but it helped a lot that I had prepared, so I felt like I knew what I was talking about.” He spent several hours practicing. “I learned not to stress out so much,” he adds, “because now I’m confident that if I know the information, it’s easier for me to share it. I think I’ll be a better speaker now when I’m working and talking with patients.”
At the conclusion of each presentation, Dr. Wong asks each presenter open-ended questions. He finds that the ensuing discussion helps the students to relax as they’re talking in front of the class. Then he invites the other class members to engage as well. “This creates an open dialogue that’s highly productive for everyone,” he says.
The art of public speaking
One of Dr. Wong’s requirements is that students not simply read off the slides they’ve prepared. He asks them to make eye contact with their audience. “I grade them on their body language,” Wong says. “I ask them to become aware of habits they may not know they have, such as keeping their hands in their pockets, or twirling their hair with their fingers.” He talks with them about the effect of standing still or walking around the room, or of leaning on a podium versus standing up straight.
“I even ask them to think about the tone of voice they’re using,” he adds, “and whether they use some variation in their voice or speak in a monotone that can put their audience to sleep.” Once he gives the students feedback—including about what they are doing well—he encourages them to work on those aspects that will improve their overall performance.
“I want students to develop a command of the room, so they can feel positive and confident in how they present themselves,” Wong says. “Over the course of the class they come to understand how body language can sometimes be even more important than what they’re saying verbally.”
Matthew is busy at work on his next presentation, which compares the conditions of sciatica (a leg pain caused by the sciatic nerve) and radiculopathy (a condition of a compressed nerve in the spine). He says he has recommended the Medical Assisting program to several other people he knows. “The instructors really work with you,” he says. “And the classes are very well paced—so you don’t feel like you’re going either too slow or too fast. The hands-on learning and the small class sizes have made a big difference to me.”
This post is part of the Salter College weekly blog. Founded in 1937, Salter College is a career training school in Massachusetts that aims to support all our students as they strive for their professional goals. Contact us today to learn more about our various career training programs, or to request more information. Call our Chicopee campus (413-206-0300) or our West Boylston campus (774-261-1500) to schedule a visit. We look forward to hearing from you!