Supporting Self-directed Learning to Build Active Engagement

| 05 Mar 2020

How an Education Focussed academic is helping her students connect with course learning outcomes

Conversation around independent learning or self-directed learning (SDL) frequently arises in the context of higher education and student engagement.

Dr Melanie Fentoullis, Senior Lecturer (Clinical Education Fellow) at UNSW Medicine, finds this learning practice valuable in many ways: it acquaints her students better with her course and also develops their core skills as life-long learners and future clinicians.

She shares with us her experience with self-directed learning and how she leverages it to create a more meaningful learning experience for her students.

What exactly do we mean by self-directed learning? 

Simply put, self-directed learning is taking responsibility for your professional development. It’s about taking ownership of your learning, choosing your goals and activities, and directing your progress through critical analysis and self-reflection.

What has been your experience with self-directed learning in your course?

As future clinicians, my students need to develop a passion and drive for continuous improvement, to embrace the challenge of life-long learning, in order to advocate for and provide the best possible care for their patients.

I hope to foster these skills early in their training - in evaluating their learning needs to build on their knowledge and to motivate them to become the most effective clinician they can be. As a Consultant Paediatrician, I have closely seen that clinical workplaces can be quite hectic, characterised by competing demands around delivering safe and good quality patient care. So, it’s crucial that our students are developing the competencies and skills to thrive in such dynamic learning environments.

Using self-directed principles, I have designed a Curriculum Document for our program’s Clinical Transition Course that I convene assisting out ILP and Honours students moving from their fourth (predominantly research focussed) year to learning in Phase 3 in the busy clinical environment. This document outlines recommendations and expectations against the assessment requirements and empowers the students to:

  • understand how the learning activities and assessments align with course learning outcomes
  • identify which specific learning activities provide opportunities to complete formative assessment tasks
  • receive feedback and check their progress before deadlines for task submissions or course requirements
  • develop and practice their skills for Phase 3

This structure promotes flexibility and establishes a line of sight for the students – ‘why’ should they engage with a specific course activity – ‘how’ does this activity or assessment align with the course learning outcome.

Why was it important for you to give these pedagogical strategies to your students?

As a medical educator, I work collaboratively with students and my teaching philosophy is geared towards facilitating a student-centred approach to learning. My students wanted flexibility around planning their learning and a better understanding of how to engage with the learning outcomes, so that they could plan their time - an essential skill when learning in busy clinical placements.

I want my students to have the tools and structure that yields value over the entirety of their medical career. Self-directed learning helps them optimise their ability and time to achieve the learning outcomes. With these priorities, I hope to drive my students to become independent and self-directed learners, and demonstrate positive professional skills.

What has been the feedback from the students?

My students have really appreciated the innovative Curriculum Document! They tell me that they now have the flexibility and insight to plan their engagement with each learning activity and this has positively impacted on their wellbeing.

Dr Melanie Fentoullis is an Education Focussed academic and a Senior Lecturer (Clinical Education Fellow) at UNSW Medicine. She is involved at all levels across the UNSW Medical Program, serving as a Clinical Skills tutor for Phase 1 students, Convenor of the Graduate Entry Bridging Course and the Clinical Transition Course, and Co-convenor of Phase 3 Medicine. Dr Fentoullis is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and works as a Consultant General Paediatrician. When she is not at UNSW or in the hospital, you can find her keeping up with her happy and active 3 year old son.


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