Arizona Vet School’s “bold new approach” to teaching

A cross-disciplinary approach aims to turn veterinary students at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine into “day-one-ready” practitioners through hands-on learning and mentorship.

By Emily Singler

When veterinarians in the United States think back to their time in vet school, what comes to mind are likely images of early years in a lecture hall all day long, followed by rotations in a teaching hospital. The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine aims to change that by giving their students a new way to learn that is steeped in self-preparation, team-based approaches, and real-world experiences.  

This “bold new approach,” as the school’s website explains, aims to produce “day-one-ready” practitioners who feel ready to take on the many challenges of our profession with confidence, practical skills, and proven learning strategies on board. 

Active learning and a fast-tracked curriculum 

Christina V. Tran, DVM, associate professor of practice and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, explains more about this new model, which involves “active learning” from the very beginning.  

One major difference is that the curriculum has been condensed into a total of three years from start to graduation. Students do not take any summers off, but they are able to get into the workforce or their next step in training a year earlier, while not losing out on educational experiences.  

At first glance, the curriculum plan looks very different from what most veterinarians might expect: Instead of class titles like anatomy, biochemistry, and immunology, Arizona students take a systems-based approach to learning with plenty of real-world examples.  

When studying the integumentary system, for example, Tran explains that students simultaneously learn about ectoparasites in one class while learning to perform a skin scrape and practice their microscope skills in their clinical skills course, and covering communication and client education related to potential differential diagnoses in their professional skills class.  

Pre-work helps students prepare for upcoming lessons, then they take a self-assessment before working in teams to learn more, answer questions, and teach each other.  

Important nonclinical topics are also covered, including business, personal financial competency, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Elements of the school’s philosophy help students to feel that they can be “human”—personal days are available to take with no explanation required; hours in clinics are capped to allow time to complete individual studies and attend to needs and responsibilities outside of school; and it is made clear that students are not expected to know it all by the time they graduate. Instead, they are encouraged to “learn how to learn,” Tran said—and never stop.  

A hands-on clinical year—with mentorship 

One of the biggest differences at Arizona is the absence of a teaching hospital. Instead of sending students to spend their last year at other vet schools, the University of Arizona has created a distributive model that sends students out to “clinical affiliates,” including private practices, urgent care clinics, emergency clinics, referral hospitals, shelters, zoos, and wildlife rehabilitation centers, to gain hands-on experience.  

While many of the affiliate locations are practices in Arizona, there are opportunities in almost all 50 states for students to choose from, if they are willing to travel.  

The veterinary mentors at each clinical affiliate site undergo training on the expectations of mentorship along with key techniques and teaching styles that can help students get the most from the experience.  

To further aid the students and lessen the load on the practicing mentors, each student also is assigned a clinical year mentor (CYM) veterinarian to be a point of contact throughout their rotations. CYMs work remotely and can be a sounding board and advocate for the student. They also participate in grading, reviewing medical records, helping set goals, and encouraging students throughout their training.  

To ensure each student is indeed ready for practice by the time they graduate, the college has developed 31 Professional Individual Goals (PIGs) in which each student must reach specific levels of competency before graduation.  

Some of the PIGs include: 

  • Gathering an appropriate history 
  • Performing a complete physical exam 
  • Creating accurate medical records 
  • Performing sedation, anesthesia, and basic surgeries 
  • Developing preventive care plans 
  • Discussing recommended diagnostics and treatment plans with clients 
  • Making sound financial and business decisions, and  
  • Establishing a “relationship-centered” approach to working within the veterinary healthcare team.  

Looking to the Class of ’23  

The program’s inaugural class began mostly virtually in August 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This group of approximately 107 students has now entered their clinical year and will graduate with their DVM in August 2023.  

They will start their careers with a sound knowledge base and practical clinical skills, but they will hopefully also have a good initial understanding of the techniques they need to thrive personally and grow professionally.  

If proven successful, this approach may serve as a model for reimagination of veterinary education going forward so that our newest colleagues can excel, and so that we can all benefit from their knowledge, optimism, and creativity. 

Further reading  

The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine  

https://vetmed.arizona.edu 

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