Educating a 21st-century veterinarian

A curriculum overhaul incorporates integrated learning blocks with lectures and hands-on activities focused on animal health to prepare future graduates for lifelong learning.

Penn Vet’s last major curriculum change was in the 1970s, when the School introduced a core/elective model. Subsequent years brought new additions and refinements, but nothing close to the magnitude of the 2023 overhaul.

Although innovative at the time, the old curriculum couldn’t keep pace with a changing world. Discoveries in basic science and their translation into clinical treatments happen exponentially faster than 50 years ago. Technologies and wearable devices continue to transform education and medicine almost every day. And new understandings of adult learning and student and teacher needs have led to pedagogical innovations that better engage everyone.

Alexis Massey (left) and Kiera Zimmerman.
Penn Vet students Alexis Massey (left) and Kiera Zimmerman. (Image: Bellwether Magazine)

In early 2022, Alexis Massey voluntarily withdrew from her first year at Penn Vet for family reasons. She returned a year later to a radically transformed learning experience. Penn Vet’s new curriculum had launched for the Class of 2026 and those to follow.

Gone were the long hours of siloed didactic lectures on core information. In their place were shorter, integrated learning blocks with lectures and hands-on activities focused on animal health and disease and critical, independent, and scientific thinking.

“We must prepare a different kind of graduate,” says Kathryn E. Michel, associate dean for education and professor of nutrition. “The current rate of biomedical discovery means that even over the course of a veterinary education there will be new diagnostic capabilities and treatments when a student graduates that didn’t exist when they began school, so we must educate and cultivate lifelong learners.”

In 2017, Michel, building on an effort begun by former associate dean of education Tom Van Winkle, convened a redesign team to identify and implement a curricular model for 21st-century veterinarians.

“A group of dedicated and talented staff and faculty from across disciplines came together and said: ‘let’s do this right,’” says Amy Durham, assistant dean for education and professor of anatomic pathology. “We also enlisted the help of outside advisors and did a tremendous amount of research. What shook loose was CBVE.” Created by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, CBVE is competency-based veterinary education, an outcomes-based, learner-centered framework.

“We’re still giving didactic lectures with excellent information, but the content has been trimmed to core knowledge based on the backward design process,” says Durham. “This enables us to offer more labs, hands-on experiences, and asynchronous and group activities with clinical case integration. Students spend roughly the same amount of time learning every week, but the active learning opportunities give the sense of a lightened schedule, which we hope translates into better well-being.”

In year one, students learn about animals in health, delving into the form and function of healthy animals. Year two will build on this, presenting the same blocks through the lens of animals in disease, looking at prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

“This holistic approach toward each animal system is powerful,” says Elizabeth Woodward, clinical associate professor of biomedical sciences. “They learn the anatomical terminology of a particular system, as well as the histology and physiology that go along with it, and the interconnection between all of these. It’s really helping students understand how an entire system works. The old curriculum was more limiting because it taught anatomy, histology, and physiology in isolation of each other.”

Read more at Bellwether Magazine.