How to Craft CE Worth Attending, Part 2: Be Smart, Teach Dumb

How to Craft CE Worth Attending, Part 2: Be Smart, Teach Dumb

In Part 1 of our series on how to produce continuing education worth attending, we discussed the importance of tailoring your content for individual learners and building up bridges from their initial understanding to reach the objectives you want to transmit.

Now let’s talk about how to be the vehicle for that content. Most of it can be summed up in two sentences: You have to be smart. You don’t have to act smart.

Know It to Teach It

If we’re honest, it’s no mystery why it’s difficult to learn from many instructors: They don’t understand the concepts themselves. Not really. Oh, they may have a sense for the basics, and certainly they’ve read the slides before. They can parrot the proper words. But how deeply do they truly grasp the topic?

Typically the answer is “barely one step ahead of the students.” This is because medicine is complicated, and the qualifications for many instructors don’t extend much beyond a few years on the job and a borderline case of burnout. In the eyes of many, this is perfectly adequate. After all, how much “extra” do you really need to know?

The answer: a lot.

Your job isn’t to read slides, and the value you contribute isn’t merely to be one step ahead of your class; if that were all, last week’s students could teach this week’s group. (Pretty soon it would be a self-sustaining loop.) If your class is a car driving down a dark road, it’s not enough for you to be driving ahead of them, reading off street signs a few minutes in advance. Instead your job is to know the entire area they’re driving through and be able to describe the surrounding terrain and their place within it.

Only with this level of knowledge can you intelligently answer questions, create fair assessments, customize a curriculum or understand the evidence for your claims. But it also yields something even more important: the ability to attach raw information to a contextual framework that lends it priority and meaning. The value an expert instructor brings is perspective. With a large and detailed mental map, they can guide students through the territory rather than stumbling along beside them.

What is never the challenge. You need to know why, why not and what next. Otherwise you’re merely telling students to memorize bullet points, and they don’t need your help to do that.

So what’s the solution? Just say “no.” Don’t agree to teach a subject just because you’re asked. Do it because it’s your subject, your passion, one you know backward and forward. I know you have such subjects—all smart, experienced clinicians do—just like I know that often, you’re teaching something else.

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Will this mean paring back your offerings? Yep. Worthwhile organizations will respect you for it. Don’t worry about the rest.

What to Pick, What to Skip

If you understand the material, you’ll be able to perform a very useful trick: cutting to the heart of the subject and discarding the junk.

The ratio of useful content to obfuscation and filler in most lectures, textbooks and entire teaching programs is dismally low. Much of this amounts to playing dress-up: We believe students expect education to appear a certain way, so without considering whether it’s serving our goals, we make our material “look the part” by garbing it in the accoutrements of academia. Then we try to sell it to a room full of the most finely honed BS detectors you’ll ever see. No wonder they don’t buy it.

We discussed last time how everything you teach should matter to your adult students, so let’s apply that lens. Has any EMT in the history of the planet ever cared about the epidemiology of a disease? How about its economic impact per annum in the continental U.S.? Or the history of its discovery?

Skip it. Then take what’s left and boil away the BS. Don’t pretend you’re teaching graduate school. Pretend you’re teaching third grade. Use plain English to explain concepts a child could understand. If your students need to constantly translate your “medicalese” into normal words, they won’t have time to actually understand them. Skilled educators pre-translate, and if their takeaway point is “This bit goes into that bit,” they simply say that. Keeping the vehicle simplistic doesn’t prevent you from teaching sophisticated concepts—it streamlines their delivery.

Don’t include numbers, formulas, terminology or physical laws when the concepts alone are what matter. Never present useless background information; it crowds out the useful background. Never spend more than 10 seconds on a title slide or learning objectives. Resist the urge to discuss exceptions, complications and factoids that don’t make a difference. Omit diagrams and illustrations you don’t intend anybody to read anyway. Don’t discuss research unless it’s central to your point; merely cite it in out-of-the-way notations or offer your sources “by request.”

Any of these things can have a necessary and valuable role, but including them inevitably drains large amounts of student attention and squanders your capital as an instructor, so they’re an expensive luxury unless absolutely necessary. If you must broach the term “lusitropy,” then you must, but you don’t get to play that card many times, so consider how much it supports your core objectives. Cut and pare until you’re lean and mean.

And never, for the love of God, waste your time telling war stories.

How to Craft Continuing Education Worth Attending, Part 1: Start with the Student

How to Craft CE Worth Attending, Part 3: The Takeaway

Brandon Oto, PA-C, NREMT-B, is an EMS educator and a critical care PA resident at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He manages and His interests include BLS fundamentals, evidence-based medicine, physical diagnosis, and ECG interpretation.


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