Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine (NoordaCOM) in Provo, Utah, is not only teaching virtually for the 2021-2022 school year, its inaugural year, but will also not be offering scheduled classes. Inspired by the school’s mission to be innovative in the medical education community, NoordaCOM’s leadership opted to have students take in information via “learning pods” with their classmates.
“We have pre-curated all of the content that would typically go into a lecture format,” says Jennifer Brown, associate dean of academic affairs at NoordaCOM. “There are five learning objectives per hour and a video or PowerPoint to teach a concept. The students work together in their pods to absorb the learning activity and take an individual daily quiz to test their knowledge.”
NoordaCOM has so far received positive feedback from students, though the school is constantly updating courses based on student feedback. Labs will still run relatively typical to those at other osteopathic medical schools. Although smaller learning pods make sense during the COVID-19 pandemic, NoordaCOM leaders say they are planning to keep this learning model permanently.
Review sessions with professors
Along with the daily pod work, students can attend review sessions for their class every other week, where professors go over information again and remediate for areas that might not have hit the first time around. It’s a time for students to come together, ask questions and get exposed to different viewpoints.
NoordaCOM will also provide additional tutoring sessions for students upon request, and there is a chat room with faculty on standby should students run into questions while in the pods. Most faculty stay close to campus when pods are in session in case they need to run to campus to demonstrate work.
“We have an online scheduling portal where students can sign up for the blocks of time to be in the pods, and they can pick and choose who is in their group if they would like,” says Brown. “It’ll be a minimum of two to three hours depending on the day, and they always have the opportunity to go off with other students and continue their work after pod time.”
Brittney Harrell, OMS I, NoordaCOM’s student body president, really enjoys not having scheduled lectures.
“The flexibility allows me to pick and choose just how long or short my days are going to be,” she says. “For example, some days I prefer to view lectures in my pod earlier in the day to allow myself more time in the evening to study if I find a particular concept challenging,” she says. “Sometimes I prefer to attend pod later in the afternoon or evening so that I can spend my mornings reviewing the previous days’ content, attending review labs or taking care of any personal matters.”
Medical school can be mentally taxing, Harrell notes, and she appreciates being able to switch up her schedule when she needs a break or something else comes up.
Students will have access to all learning videos for the entirety of their time before graduation. Faculty will also reference back to previous videos throughout students’ training.
How students are responding
“So far, we’ve had really positive feedback,” says Brown. “Some students have said it wasn’t what was expected or traditionally done, but they feel that they’re learning more and better than they did in their undergraduate studies because of the community and format we’re taking. We’re asking them to do hard things, but learning outcomes have been excellent, almost up to a surprising point.”
Harrell has found learning in a pod to be rewarding.
“Many of these medical concepts we are learning are very complex,” she says, “and it’s nice to break these topics down while in small groups.”
Within the lectures, students are often given “Pod Play” activities, which are meant to spark discussion among the pod and test students’ knowledge regarding the content they just learned.
“Pods are great because we get a chance to bounce ideas off each other and also help each other when needed,” Harrell says. “People are often intimidated to ask questions when they are in a larger lecture. Pods offer a more intimate, relaxed space to ask those necessary questions. Overall, pods make me feel more supported by my peers and if I don’t understand something, I always have people to help me right in that moment of learning.”
Located in Provo, 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City, NoordaCOM is hoping to supply much-needed medical professionals to hospitals in and around Utah County. NoordaCOM is the county’s first medical school.
Although lectures are available to view from home if needed, labs will run pretty traditionally for the program. An instructor will go over techniques and demonstrate them, and students will sign up to be in a smaller group to practice, then the instructor will sign off on the work.
“We are hoping this style of learning will give students an advantage, but we have no data to back it up just yet as we are in the midst of our first semester,” says Brown. “Students get stressed out in the classroom, so we are trying to reduce that friction between them and the administration. Hopefully this will better prepare students to be residents and will help them stand out with residency directors later on.”
As of now, faculty and students alike are still figuring out what video lecture styles work best, what sorts of pod plays are most beneficial, and more, adjusting when needed.
Harrell hopes other medical schools will embrace a pod approach similar to NoordaCOM’s. She says the model is good for students’ well-being.
“Because our education is so student-focused and individualized, it takes away much of the stress associated with medical education,” she says. “NoordaCOM values mental health so much that it is incorporated into our curriculum. I think other medical students would appreciate the collaborative model that we use, not only because it allows them to learn at a steadier pace but because it also allows them to feel in control of their own medical education.”