How to Craft CE Worth Attending, Part 3: The Takeaway
In Part 1 and Part 2 of our series, we talked about establishing conceptual bridges to connect learners with the desired objectives and using your expertise to simplify the message down to its essence. Now let’s discuss a final point: what your students should take with them when they leave the room.
The Supporting Cast
What many students—and many instructors—fail to understand is that the bulk of the material in any learning environment isn’t really meant to be learned.
After all, that would be an unreasonable goal. When I pick up a paramedic text, is the idea that someone reading it will memorize all 1,200 pages of content? No. The true objectives are much more abbreviated. So why’s the book so long? Because the main points won’t work on their own; you need some other stuff in order to understand them.
In Part 2 we discussed the value of stripping away all the fluff and filler you can. But some of it you can’t. Your objectives are the capstone atop a conceptual pyramid, but they won’t just float there alone; to prop them up you need to build a foundation.
The role of supporting information is to help students understand your core points, believe them and remember them. Thus they’re a necessary and salutatory tool in your arsenal. On the other hand, they are not themselves important and don’t need to stay with anyone after they walk out the door. Confused yet?
If I’m teaching pharmacology, my goal is probably for students to learn the clinical use of the drugs in their box. To achieve a nuanced, intelligent understanding of this, we may have to discuss concepts from biochemistry, cytology and physiology. But those are a means, not the end. Once they climb that conceptual ladder to reach the destination, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, I don’t care if they kick it aside. That’s why it’s OK that an attending neurosurgeon can no longer remember every step of the Krebs cycle, yet it wasn’t a waste of time when he learned it in medical school.
Supporting information can provide useful context, reinforce important ideas by highlighting them in different ways, and suggest practical applications and ramifications. Even the oft-abused war stories, when properly utilized, can serve this purpose (although in reality they usually serve no purpose except to fill time). All of these supportive struts help construct the house where your objectives will live.
Even mentioning ideas that don’t directly support your core objectives—like pointing them out through the car window as you drive past—is sometimes worthwhile, if those separate “islands” of information are worth knowing about on a lesser level (i.e., being aware of their existence, if not necessarily committing them to memory). That’s OK too, if there’s a good reason for it.
The Star Players
Here’s the trouble with ancillary information: When you offer up a million facts, students can become overwhelmed if you don’t make it clear they’re not actually expected to learn them all. If you fail to properly highlight your actual objectives and set them apart from the background content, learners are left to sift for what matters among an endless sea of slides and bullet points. Often the result is that they’ll take away nothing at all—or assume there was nothing to take away in the first place. (“What were we supposed to learn from that?” they’ll ask one another in the hall.)
Provide what supporting material is needed, but make it clear what you actually expect students to remember, and in what ways you want them to be different for having attended. Often this will only amount to a handful of key concepts. Three or four is a good number. More than that, and you may pop the balloon, leaving them with nothing. Don’t get greedy.
Hammer home your core points at every opportunity. Reading a monotone list of learning objectives from your second slide doesn’t count; at that point the words don’t mean anything. Instead weave your objectives into the material, reinforcing them over and over and reviewing them both periodically and at the finale. Like your old grade-school essays that began each paragraph with a topic sentence, keeping a close eye on the plot will ensure neither you nor your audience get lost.
If you watch a stand-up act by the comic Chris Rock, you’ll notice that while his bits are hilarious and creative, they’re founded upon fairly simple conceits—and, like a mantra, he’ll explicitly repeat his thesis over and over. “A lot of comedians have great jokes, and they’re like, Why isn’t this working?” he explained once in an interview. “It’s not working because the audience does not understand the premise.” All the embellishment in the world won’t hit home if the listener doesn’t get the theme it’s meant to develop.
The best instructors will tell you upfront what you’re going to learn, and often it’s remarkably simplistic. But you don’t really grasp it yet, don’t believe it or simply aren’t applying it in your practice. So their goal is to make you walk away having made permanent room in your mind for a few things you’ll now truly understand on a deep level. The rest of the hour was merely dedicated to carving out that space.
We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing how you can reinvent your teaching style for continuing education to make it more useful, efficient and accessible. Now let’s use those lessons to summarize what you should walk away with:
1. Refuse to teach subjects where you cannot claim true mastery.
2. Customize material based upon what’s relevant for your specific audience.
3. Use your expertise to hone the topic down to its essential points and present those points simply and directly.
4. Make clear what’s “nice to know” versus what’s essential to remember.
5. Create a conceptual chain of ideas that brings your audience from their baseline all the way to understanding your core objectives.
6. Smile. You’re doing it better than 95% of instructors out there.
Brandon Oto, PA-C, NREMT-B, is an EMS educator and a critical care PA resident at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. He manages EMSBasics.com and LitWhisperers.com. His interests include BLS fundamentals, evidence-based medicine, physical diagnosis and ECG interpretation.