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Home > EMS Products > Education
February 06, 2013
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EMS in Focus
by Dean Meenach

5 steps to empower EMS students in the classroom

The ownership for the students' education falls on our shoulders if we don't progress beyond the lecture

By Dean Meenach

Dorothy Sayers once stated, "... the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."

Those of us in EMS education know there is no greater truth. Evidence-based education has validated Sayers' philosophy. We see the effects of 'spoon feeding' students their curriculum, study guides and homework.

We have witnessed the enthusiastic efforts of adding expensive teaching technology with the noble motive of "being better teachers." At some point in our careers, we are forced to swallow the bitter pill: being a better teacher does not necessarily result in improved student learning.

EMS students need to be empowered to be life-long learners. Empowerment is a self-directed growth process that supports and encourages the EMS student to explore and learn as both an individual as well as in a team. Concepts such as autonomy, responsibility, accountability, self-discovery, and choice are incorporated into student expectations and learning experiences.

By empowering students, you can capture the diverse imaginations, observations, opinions, hopes and dreams of your students. Research shows that students who are empowered are more likely to be motivated to participate in learning activities, have higher retention rates, and are more satisfied with their educational experience.

Obstacles to student empowerment

There are plenty of obstacles to empowerment, including the conditioned students themselves, who would rather be told what to do and follow a well-known script. If we progress no further than entertain them in the classroom, the ownership for the their education falls on our shoulders. The students are just along for the ride.

When they are truly empowered, they feel responsible for their own learning. We are there as teachers and facilitators to ensure that their learning experience results in safe and competent providers. We should strive to be join our partners in learning…the students.

The biggest obstacle is not time, technology, learning tools or money. The biggest barrier is the culture of teacher-managed (controlled) learning. My colleague Bob Page describes this as the "instructor say, student do" philosophy. This 'educational fallacy' creates what are commonly called dependent learners.

Empowered students combat this cultural war by transforming into independent learners that are globally connected. This results in students contributing content, activities, and problem-based lessons to the whole classroom.

Five Simple Steps to Empowering Students

1. Foster the environment for student buy-in.

Teach students to learn about learning. Explain and apply the techniques that you will use in your classroom. Some of your students may never have experienced any education beyond the boundaries of teacher-lead learning.

You know they have the buy-in when you see their disappointed faces when you revert back to presenting a lecture of power point slides.  

2. Give students a stake in the curriculum.

This may seem like an unrealistic idea in an age of the National EMS Education Standards and competency verification. However, this is actually entirely possible.

For instance, if you are helping paramedic students learn about research, don't just tell them what or how to research.  Have them to develop their own clinical question. Or, throw twenty topics into a hat and let them draw out a random question. 

3. Encourage meaningful technology in the classroom.

Many educators tell students to turn off their electronic devices when they walk into the classroom. However, it can be incredibly empowering to do just the opposite. Students are allowed to bring a variety of devices into the classroom - as long as it is used for learning. Have a strict policy about non-educational use of technology. (They are usually busy enough that personal use is not an issue.)

It is important for students to realize that learning must not just happen within the four walls of the classroom or lab. It also puts learning power in their hands.

4. Make learning authentic.

A common complaint that students have about what they learn in class is that it doesn't seem to apply to the real world. Engage students by holding them responsible for developing real world scenarios to be used in the class lesson.

5. Expand student's sense of responsibility.

Allow everyone to value and benefit from their work. Try service learning or project-based learning. By creating content or a lesson that will impact their classmates, students recognize the tremendous power they can have as education stakeholders.

Years ago I was struggling to explain to a class of paramedic students the important concept of negative intrathoracic pressure in ventilation. Sensing my difficulty, a student began talking about an old ventilation model he saw on television. This resulted in us developing a creative assignment in which the students each took an important concept of ventilation, developed a lesson, and later facilitated their lesson.

One of the students was a gifted craftsman and made a model to demonstrate how negative intrathoracic pressure causes the lungs to fill with air. When he brought in the model, a fellow student commented, "That's nice enough to put on your coffee table". I have used his model for years since to effectively demonstrate that concept.

At times, empowering students can feel like a risky move. However, if you can endure a little bit of chaos, you may end up with more engaged, fulfilled, and empowered students as a result!

About the author

Dean Meenach, RN, BSN, CEN, CCRN, CPEN, EMT-P has entered his 18th year of teaching and currently serves as Director of EMS Education/Paramedic Instructor and co-teacher in the Paramedic to RN Bridge Program at Mineral Area College. He is a 22 year veteran in EMS and has served as a subject matter expert, author, national speaker, and collaborative author in micro-simulation programs. Dean continues to serve patients part time as a member of a stroke team and in a pediatric an adult trauma center. He can be reached at dmeenach@mineralarea.edu.
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