Evaluation of a problem-based curriculum in midwifery

C McCourt, B Gail Thomas
Midwifery 2001, 17 (4): 323-31

OBJECTIVE: to evaluate the implementation of a 'problem-based' learning (PBL) curriculum within midwifery.

DESIGN: a 'realistic evaluation' model based on cost-effectiveness models of economics, and incorporating both qualitative and quantitative methodology. The design used historical comparison, comparing students following the new curriculum with a baseline of previous student cohorts and exploring staff and student experiences.

SETTING: a 'new' university, providing a degree-level 18 month pre-registration midwifery programme for an intake of about 40 students per cohort.

PARTICIPANTS: all students in the cohort qualifying immediately before the implementation and all those in the first cohort following the new curriculum were invited to participate fully. Assessment outcomes for three cohorts of students qualifying before and the first three cohorts qualifying following the change were analysed. All clinical staff directly involved in mentoring the relevant student groups, all academic staff involved in delivering the new curriculum and the course external examiner were invited to participate.

INTERVENTION: the evaluation studied a major change in the way the overall midwifery curriculum was delivered, widely described as PBL.

MEASUREMENTS: students' experiences and perspectives were sought through review of routine evaluation documents, nominal group technique exercises and focus group discussions at about six months following qualification. Clinical staff experiences and perspectives were sought through written structured questionnaires. Academic staff views were sought through personal semi-structured interviews. Participant observation of the process, review of course documents and of staff reflective commentaries were also conducted. Data on student completion rates and final grade were analysed.

FINDINGS: although students' views of the curriculum were generally positive, they experienced some discomfort and difficulty in adjustment to a new style of learning. Small group learning, independence and skills in using and conveying information and research evidence were valued aspects of the new approach. Quality of clinical placement experience and university-practice links were an important area of positive experience or concern. Clinical staff views of the curriculum showed considerable stability, with major concerns being the balance of theory and practice time and skills which were not influenced by the curriculum change. At both points, ability to critically evaluate and use evidence in practice was regarded highly. Student outcomes showed some evidence of possible divergence of grades in the new curriculum.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: the manner and context of implementation of educational change may have important implications for student experiences and outcomes and the experiences of educators. Adequate preparation at all levels for a different, more independent style of learning is important and students are likely to need clear guidance and feedback on their progress in the early stages of the curriculum, to monitor progress and to provide reassurance. Longer-term research is needed to assess the impact of PBL on theory-practice links and on the midwives as practitioners.

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