What’s in a Curriculum?

Last Updated on May 22, 2024 by Laura Turner

The reason why you invest so much in your professional education is the trust that the learning process will prepare you for your next career step.  This plan is known as a curriculum, and unlike pre-professional education, this curriculum is proscriptive with very rigorous steps and experiences, and relatively little flexibility.  By attending a specific health professional program, you buy into their specific recipe of preparation which includes outstanding preclinical courses and clinical experiences in accordance with standards set forth by overseeing accrediting agencies run by professionals in the field.  

Every few years, accreditors desire scientific evidence of effective teaching and learning in the curriculum; after all, they want to prove to peers and the public that the school’s curriculum truly prepares students.  When a school’s curriculum changes, a lot of effort goes into the assessment of students both within a course and throughout their time as students.  So being tested every week is intentionally designed not only to help gauge your learning but also to measure the effective instruction of the entire class.

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Here are ten concepts that health professional students should be familiar with regarding their specific curricula.

1. Grading

If your professional school does not calculate GPAs by making all of its courses pass-fail, the registrar will keep track of your relative performance to the entire class.  Sometimes this is reflected in a three-point grading scale (Honors, Pass, Fail), but each health professions program knows each student’s performance relative to the rest of the class.  You may want to know the meaning of each threshold and how it may change with each class you take, and how this information is used to help you with your future plans.

2. Attendance Policies

Whatever is mandatory on the class calendar is a non-negotiable piece of the curriculum.  Make sure you know exactly when you are supposed to be attending lectures or taking exams, and schedule your preparation accordingly.  While one can go through a health professions education on recorded lectures, many classes will take attendance as part of your course grade.  

It is also important to know whether you must comply with expected dress codes (when on campus or during clinical rotations).  Some schools forbid wearing scrubs during lectures while others welcome it.  Finally, anatomy education is progressing towards a more virtual environment or with prosected specimens, so find out if or how much you will need to spend on an instrument kit (whether buying or renting).

3. Formative Evaluations

While “formative” is educational jargon for “practice,” never approach these formative assessments lightly.  Just as you would with practice exams for your favorite standardized exam, these formative assessments allow you and your advisors to see how well you are learning the material and critically applying the information.

4. Clinical Experience

Most educators understand the importance of showing how what you learn in the classroom applies to your clinical knowledge.  Many schools incorporate early observation or interaction with patients as advocates while others hold back for at least one term before first-years even see a patient in a formal setting.  Know how having this experience helps make you more prepared for life after professional school.

5. Systems-Based Learning

You are likely more accustomed to traditional discipline-based teaching (what you learned in physics generally had no crossover to biology).   Using a systems-based approach to learning, you learn everything about how a body system works from molecules to the entire body.  Understanding actin-myosin dynamics as it relates to blood pressure takes integration of molecular biology, physiology, chemistry, and physics concepts.

6. Flipped Classroom

Education research shows that retention of information is least effective in passive lectures.  A flipped classroom promotes engagement among students, even within a lecture, so that the instructor gets direct feedback on the effectiveness of learning.  Be comfortable going into “thinking pairs” and reporting out the key learning points from your conversations.

7. Problem-Based Learning

What better way to learn about the Newtonian laws of motion than to talk about cars accelerating or decelerating?  Learning how abstract concepts you learn matter in “real-life” is the point of having problems or cases to present and resolve.  A well-designed clinical case should focus learners on important major concepts, such as the different drugs used for various cardiac indications and the mechanisms of action that promote or counter-indicate their use.  These “real-life” problems allow you to learn by analyzing and communicating the issues in a safe space.

8. Student Support

Understand what happens when formative results are disappointing.  What effective practices do student services provide for those students who struggle with learning?  Are these services confidential as well as effective?  What happens if a clinical assessment is disappointing?

9. Formative Exam Study Plans for Critical Board Exams

Some schools will develop individual plans for each student based on their course performance, while others will recommend resources for the entire class.  Find out if you have scheduled time in the curriculum to help you study for your board exams with these extra materials.

10. Student Promotion and Remediation Processes

Knowing what your resources are when it comes to your standing and promotion to the next level of your education is critical from the beginning.  Many students may experience unanticipated challenges, so reading your student handbook to know what the criteria and the processes are to seek a leave of absence will be important.  If you have a student dean, make sure you are able to trust that person who should advocate for you while understanding the standards of the curriculum.  If for whatever reason you are unsuccessful, know who your advocates (student representatives and faculty) are in any potential hearing that may recommend you for remediation, probation, repeating a year, or dismissal.

For applicants, learning about curricula at different schools can help you build the best possible school list for you. For those about to start on their professional school journey, reviewing the curriculum for your institution will set you up for success.

Understanding your school’s curriculum is more than a requirement—it’s a strategy to maximize your educational experience. Each element of your program, from grading systems to clinical experiences and student support, is designed to prepare you for professional success. By familiarizing yourself with these components, you can tailor your approach to learning, ensuring you not only meet but exceed expectations. Engage actively with your curriculum to make the most of your educational journey and emerge as a well-prepared health professional.

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