Learning Pain in a Painless Way: Judith Hunter’s Building Blocks for Success

Judith hunterAlmost a decade ago in 2006, Judith Hunter, a professor of Physical Therapy at UofT, noticed a piece of curriculum missing – students learning about pain – and found a way to incorporate it into different courses.

In a clinical faculty like Medicine that Hunter teaches in, it is “not life-like to teach in different courses,” but for Hunter that is the case. The topic of pain is trans-curricular. Hunter wanted to provide the building blocks for students to take responsibility of their own learning, and not just arriving to class waiting for it to be taught.

Back around the time of this project, in a study done with Dr. Judy Watt-Watson, they showed that Pain was under-taught in all medical curriculums across Canada. At the time, there was a real need for pain knowledge to be incorporated into the curriculum for these students. Hunter took her two passions, one to get students more aware of pain and two to make sure that information wasn’t lost because of the way the curriculum was taught, and used these passions to formulate a plan, which was incorporating learning about pain into many different courses.

Hunter was inspired to find a way to use the Internet to give students the curricular building blocks to put it all together. Because the pain curriculum content builds on itself, it can be hard for students to make the connections between building blocks to put it together.

A slight challenge was that the content was not always current in the students’ minds as they worked through other courses, so that is why Hunter found a way to use the learning management system (Portal) to link the pain education back to what they were learning in their classes through lectures and readings.

At the time the project was developing, the University’s Portal (Blackboard) was coming out with a version that they had to adapt to meet their needs. The software is set up for courses, not for cross-course curriculums, so they had to find a way to get set up on the system without a course number. The system was not a very interactive system for students back then, mainly just a place for storing readings, and if used properly, for students to track their own learning and progress. (Hunter notes that since this project began in 2006, Blackboard’s software has improved, and now has the capabilities that they were pushing to achieve back then – but back then, it was all “cutting edge”.)

Perhaps the most compelling part of this project was that Hunter was able to get her pain “website” established without being tied to a specific course. Hunter was able to populate the pain site with the lectures and readings students were learning in their actual courses, so they could go back in later years and have it all right in front of them for review. The site remains accessible to anyone in the program, so that in later years, students are able to access what Hunter taught them in their first year. (By third year, the students are trained to use pain as diagnostic building blocks to help their patients).

In its initial stages, the project was originally focused on simply transmitting the general pain curriculum content, but as it evolved, new functionality was added with the assistance of the ITCDF fund. Teddy Cameron, one of the Faculty of Medicine’s top medical illustrators and instructional designers, played a huge role in making this phase of the project happen. The goal was to give students an “active problem solving site,” which Hunter was able to create with Cameron’s collaboration.

No PainThe tool involved the creation of a table-like chart, which students could open individually by column to see what different kinds of pain are like, or open rows to see by time of day what kind of pain is worse, and then ultimately link the two factors back together.

Due to copyright and cost, Hunter was not able to take pre-existing figures from other sources, so she had to make all the figures herself, which entailed learning to use new kinds of software, while Cameron put in a great deal of effort to do the visual work.

Hunter calls getting this grant an “amazing learning experience”. Having to apply for the grant was not a simple process, as she had to figure out what had to be done and how to make it happen before the grant was given. Hunter found it very helpful to network with different people and having to figure it out for herself helped her to grow professionally. Overall, she found it to be a very positive experience.

This project was done almost a decade ago, and although this project may be somewhat outdated now, at the time it was a great learning experience for those involved and science and technology are making it more accessible to progress this project. Students today are still going back and using the resources that Hunter set up for them in their first year.

Feature Image Photo Credit: http://flic.kr/p/tBrDa