A biostatistics professor talks about his experiences with problem-based learning

November 04, 2011

Charlie Goldsmith joined the Faculty of Health Sciences in 2010 as the inaugural appointee to the Maureen and Milan Ilich/Merck Chair in Statistics for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases.

He is an emeritus professor of biostatistics at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) with more than 270 published papers in the fields of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics as well as an international reputation for assisting in the development of evidence-based decision-making in medical practice.

What’s less known is his engagement with questions of teaching and learning.

“We spent quite a bit of time talking about teaching the next generation,” says Goldsmith, recalling his time in the School of Medicine at McMaster in the 1970s.

“We said, ‘Lectures don’t work, so let’s throw them out,’” he says bluntly. Instead, he and other faculty members pioneered a problem-based learning approach that has been widely adopted in health-care education around the world.

Students were given problems or scenarios “simulating the reality of being a health professional in a changing world.”

“We injected into the problems all kinds of ideas that had statistics injected into them or epidemiology or whatever,” he says. The students then worked in groups to find solutions.

The instructors, meanwhile, were freed up to focus on student learning.

“We paid attention to how they handled arguments, how they defined terms,” says Goldsmith. “What I concentrated on was monitoring how they talked to each other.”

He applied his statistics training to record interactions between “explainers” and “receivers” in the form of interrelational digraphs.

“Then I had data,” he says.

Next he and his colleagues introduced students to quality improvement concepts like planning, evaluation, and feedback. Students learned to judge the materials they dealt with, to self-evaluate, and to critique one another in constructive ways.

“The students taught each other,” explains Goldsmith. If they noticed that a particular student wasn’t participating in a group session, they were responsible for facilitating his or her involvement the next time.

The result was a learning experience that was both more comprehensive and more practical than traditional lecture-based approaches. Goldsmith and his colleagues published a number of papers documenting the effectiveness of their approach.

Goldsmith will teach HSCI 804 (Biostatistics) in spring 2012 and is designing a new course in health quality improvement. He plans to use problem-based learning in combination with other approaches for both.

In a sense, Goldsmith is repeating his personal history at SFU by working within a young faculty – Health Sciences is just seven years old – as it evolves. This time, however, he does so with more than forty years of experience to share.

If you are interested in discussing problem-based learning, contact Charlie Goldsmith at charles_goldsmith@sfu.ca or 778-782-9060.

We will continue our conversation with Goldsmith in a future post dealing with his career mentoring activities for faculty members at SFU.

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