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Using Learning Preference Theory to Develop a Course on Psychiatric Diagnosis for MSW Students

Shelley Levin (University of Southern California, USA)
Additional Authors
Anthony Fulginiti (University of Southern California, USA)
Session Information
July 7, 2015 - 1:00pm
Teaching & Learning Effectiveness
Areas of Special Interest: 
Blended Course
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Best Practices
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Plaza Ballroom D
Session Duration: 
50 Minutes
Concurrent Session 1
Virtual Session

This session focuses on the development and implementation of a learning preference-based course designed to teach social work students the process of psychiatric diagnosis.

Extended Abstract

Although there have been concerns regarding whether or not direct social work practice should be taught online, the burgeoning demand for and use of online social work programs highlights a pressing need to understand how social work practice can be effectively taught online. With the social work profession being one of the fastest growing occupations in the nation and constituting the largest segment of the mental health workforce, social workers are increasingly assuming positions that require them to make psychiatric diagnoses. This seminar will focus on the use of learning theory to develop and implement a blended-learning course designed to teach Master of Social Work (MSW) students the process of psychiatric diagnosis.

In October 2010, the University of Southern California School of Social Work developed a nation-wide complete MSW-degree consisting of a blended curriculum content, in conjunction with a traditional (although geographically dispersed) field internship. An important early decision of the school was that courses would be conducted such that 50% of the students class time would be in synchronous meetings with instructors and other students, and the remaining time spent working through pre-produced asynchronous learning activities. This fifty-fifty split fostered the benefits of asynchronous content (e.g. time and place access flexibility, standardization of content) while also promoting traditional small group learning that is a hallmark of many social work programs, and especially clinical practice classes. Practice classes require an environment of mutual trust among students and instructor, as discussions and role-plays often necessitate a degree of risk on the part of students.

The asynchronous component of the course work is comprised of learning activities that students complete each week prior to attending their live class session. Weekly synchronous class sessions are scheduled as they would be on campus, and each student adjusts for time zone. The class sessions are conducted via the Internet and have real-time audio and video connections that allow all students and the instructor to see and hear one another. Classes are comprised of a maximum of 12 students and an instructor.

The underlying principle of the course design was the concept of pedagogy in relation to adult learning. In 1833, German educator Alexander Knapp coined the term androgogik, or andragogy, when referring to adult learners as opposed to pedagogy, which seemed more specific to children. Knowles identified six principles of adult learning:

1. Need to Know: Adults need to know the reason for learning something.
2. Foundation: Experience (including error) provides the basis for learning activities.

3. Self Concept: Adults need to be responsible for their decisions regarding education and involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

4. Readiness: Adults are most interested in learning about subjects that have immediate relevance to their work, personal lives, or both.

5. Orientation: Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

6. Motivation: Adults respond better to internal versus external motivation.

In designing this course, the 3 major steps were to: (1) define the course philosophy (2) identify a suitable learning model for an online learning environment (3) devise a course consistent with the philosophy and learning model.

The overall course philosophy was to teach the process of making a psychiatric diagnosis, rather than teaching a cookbook approach that exclusively focuses on the rote memorization of diagnostic criteria. One important aspect of teaching a process is to make available the opportunity to practice the process repeatedly, to which the blended-learning model lends itself well.

The VARK was chosen as the learning model upon which to base the course. The VARK- an acronym that stands for Visual (V), Aural (A), Read/Write and Kinesthetic (K) - is a learning preference model that classifies students according to preferred perceptual modes for gathering information. Individuals can be classified as unimodal or multimodal, depending on whether they exhibit a single or multiple learning preferences. Although there are a vast number of learning models, the VARK has a number of distinct advantages, including that the VARK instrument is free, readily accessible, easy to complete and generates immediate feedback that can be translated into course development and implementation.

The third step involved using the VARK model to customize content and delivery material to meet the needs of students with diverse learning preferences. This included making decisions regarding what content would be presented in the synchronous and asynchronous portions of the course.

This presentation will start with an overview of the concept of learning preferences and the VARK model, including their relevance to social work education. Next, the findings of a study conducted to determine the VARK learning preferences of MSW students will be discussed. A brief overview of the diagnostic process will be given, with an emphasis on the suitability of the blended-learning environment. The majority of the presentation will focus on the customization process in Step 3. The presentation will conclude with a discussion amongst participants of how this knowledge might be used for courses of interest to the participants.

Materials provided to the participants will include a handout describing the VARK model in detail, along with a link to the website where participants may assess their own VARK learning preferences. Additionally, participants will be provided with a table of different activities for each learning preference for use in synchronous and asynchronous environments. Finally, a bibliography regarding the use of the VARK in course design will be provided.

At the conclusion of this course, participants will be able to:

1.Explain the concept of learning preferences.

2.Describe the VARK learning preferences model.

3.Apply the VARK model to design and deliver course content.

Lead Presenter

Shelley Levin received her MSW and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. She has more than 25 years of university teaching experience in the MSW and PhD programs at USC. She has also worked as a social worker in the field of community mental health services for individuals with serious mental illnesses. Dr. Levin currently teaches courses in the Mental Health concentration. She has been actively involved in course development for the Virtual Academic Center and her current research interests focus on the pedagogy of direct practice in social work.