The Value of Data for Health Sciences Students

October 17, 2014 Kristen Hicks

You’ve probably heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The gist is that six blind men, each feeling a different part of the elephant, all make incorrect assumptions of what it is they’re touching based on the limited information available to them.

The story implies no judgment on the intelligence or problem-solving abilities of the men themselves, but instead suggests how misleading receiving limited information can be. If you’re only looking at one part of the whole, you’re missing the reality of the big picture.

Students Are Working Toward One Goal

Students in the health sciences are all working toward one big goal: a successful career as a physician. Getting there means gaining a variety of experiences over a long period of time that can sometimes feel disjointed.

Each one of those experiences contributes to the knowledge needed to become successful in their chosen career, but they all have to be taken one at a time to get to that point. Grades and embedded assessment data can help them to realize their progress in each individual course or competency, but ultimately the most important thing for them to know is how they perform in terms of the larger picture.

When you bring all those disjointed elements together – independent research, class time, clinical experience, communication and people skills, etc. ¬– what does the big picture look like?

How Longitudinal Data Helps

When a health sciences program commits to a culture of assessment, it gains the ability to provide students with the big picture.

When data on student progress is collected throughout their academic career – from the time the student begins the program up to graduation – students and the program can both benefit from longitudinal data. The long-term data that shows how well students do in various outcomes over the years gives them a powerful insight into which areas of study they’ve managed to conquer and which they’ve continued to struggle with.

In the health sciences more than in more typical undergraduate or graduate programs, these unified data reports can help overcome the confusion that comes with how varied the educational experiences and required competencies are.

A student studying to become a physician assistant, for example, doesn’t just need to know how good she is at interpreting a lab test. She needs to know how good she is at communicating those results to the patient and recommending the best treatment as well. These are all different types of knowledge that are learned in separate courses over several years, but students need to be able to bring them all together into one experience to do their jobs effectively.

Students with access to longitudinal data regarding their performance throughout their health sciences program will know just which of those skills they excel at naturally, and which they’ll need to work a little harder at. This more unified approach to their knowledge and skills can make them a much stronger student and a more confident physician.


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