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Collaboration Over Competition: Problem-Based Learning in Innovative Yale PA Online Program

Written by Stephen Eichinger on Jul 7, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Digital Education

Steven Montague was frustrated. He found himself outgrowing his clinical massage therapist job and felt limited in his capacity to help patients. When he began searching for physician assistant programs in his hometown of San Diego, he made a surprising discovery: There weren’t any. Seeking alternatives, Steven came across the newly launched Yale School of Medicine Physician Assistant Online Program (Yale PA Online), which had begun accepting enrollments for its inaugural cohort in 2017. After doing his research, he decided that it was the perfect fit.

As it happened, he was right.

A practical, problem-based learning approach

Yale PA Online offered a variety of innovative structural and educational components—one being its problem-based learning (PBL) approach, a technique that program director James Van Rhee studied deeply and applied to the original curriculum design. PBL is a teaching method that uses complex, real-world problems to promote learning as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts.

Three days each week, Steven’s cohort of 40 students was divided into small groups. Each group participated in a two-hour, problem-based class that focused on a unique patient case. Instead of being given the materials needed to answer questions posed by faculty, the students were simply asked, “What do you want to know?” Steven and his classmates worked these cases like real health care providers, using targeted software to search for information, run tests and labs, and make diagnoses.

“PBL facilitated my greatest gift from Yale PA Online: a solid clinical thought process that I could carry with me through the rest of my life,” said Steven. “Yale taught me how to think meticulously yet efficiently as a clinician, and PBL was essential in developing this.”

Rooted in collaboration—not competition

Over the span of 28 months, Steven managed a rigorous, problem-based curriculum. He spent his first year engaged in the virtual classroom while gaining upwards of 120 hours of direct patient care experience in San Diego. This was followed by 15 months of clinical rotations and a one-month capstone project. Hands-on clinical experience is in fact so vital that Yale PA Online students spend over half the program completing in-person clinical rotations, in areas such as primary care, emergency medicine, women’s health, and pediatrics, among other focuses.

“The program is filled with absolutely brilliant people,” said Steven. “And despite the Type-A nature of the cohort, the format of the program incentivizes cooperation over competition. We shared everything. We didn’t withhold information from each other, and the result was a notable and palpable synergy. I’ve never worked so closely and cohesively with a group of students in my life.”

With a laser focus on learning, Steven’s cohort developed a unique bond. “I was significantly and profoundly closer with my online classmates than I ever was with my in-person counterparts in postbaccalaureate,” he said. “My Yale PA Online classmates and I were in constant contact despite our geographic distance. When we met in person at our first on-campus immersion, it felt like seeing family I hadn’t seen in a long time. After that, we became even closer.”

Gaining once-in-a-lifetime opportunities

In the time leading up to his final year, Steven gained a significant amount of experience working with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) patients. As he neared the start of his capstone project, Yale School of Medicine faculty approached Steven with a request to do something unconventional in light of his expertise. Rather than write a research paper, they asked that he create an interactive learning module.

The result, “Alcohol Use Disorder: Clinical Solutions,” includes an educational lecture on AUD and its evidence-based treatment strategies—a module so comprehensive that it will be used as part of the curriculum for future Yale PA Online cohorts. A second component includes an interactive workshop between patient and provider, allowing patients to disclose which applied AUD treatments were most effective. Steven has since worked with Yale PA Online faculty to develop a related research study, “A Focused Alcohol Use Disorder Curriculum and Its Impact on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Confidence in the Treatment of Patients with AUD,” set to be published later this year.

Steven’s involvement with the program didn’t end with his graduation, an event incidentally that marked two firsts: the first Yale PA Online graduating class and the first commencement held virtually by Yale University. After completing an education fellowship, Steven is conducting a series of lectures for a basic science course for Yale PA Online—and hopes to continue doing so. One of his long-term goals is to become a PA educator. “The fact that I was able to do all of this as a student was incredible,” Steven said. “I was offered opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. I know how unique my experience was.”

And now, he’s eager to give back.

An experience like no other

As he reaches the final steps of obtaining licensure, Steven looks forward to starting his PA career in urgent care and emergency medicine at My Chula Vista Doctors Medical Group (MCVD) in San Diego. There, he will be treating a largely medically underserved Hispanic population.

“Completing my clinical rotations in San Diego allowed me to work directly with the community that I’ll be working with in this job,” he said. “I’ve conducted hundreds of patient interviews in Spanish, and I’ve become sensitive to the community’s unique cultural and socioeconomic characteristics. Because of my prior clinical experience with this community through Yale PA Online, I’ll be a better provider.”

Despite his personal success, Steven knows there are skeptics of online education—especially when it comes to high-contact programs. But through Yale PA Online’s emphasis on experiential learning, Steven believes he gained more hands-on experience and clinical hours than he would have been able to achieve at most of the country’s online and on-campus PA programs.

“I’d recommend Yale PA Online to active learners committed to the refinement of their own thought processes,” said Steven. “It’s an excellent program—it has to be one of the best out there. But it’s not for people who want to sit back and passively absorb information. The program demands students who thrive when they are active and engaged. For them, it is bound to be life-changing.”

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