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In this article, Paul Flecknell provides some ideas for making the most of the teaching and learning resources available at Research Animal Training.

In a blog article published on the NC3Rs website in 2020 (https://nc3rs.org.uk/news/e-learning-and-3rs), I described the launch of several of our e-learning modules and discussed the advantages of including e-learning in training courses.

Following many conversations with course providers, I thought it would be useful to outline in more detail how I personally use the resources available at Research Animal Training in the training courses that I run across Europe. I will also talk about the educational concepts underpinning the approach that I use.

Around 20 or so years ago, I radically changed the anaesthesia training course at Newcastle University. Instead of using a collection of PowerPoint seminars on different topics, the course content was structured around a series of scenarios involving the anaesthesia of different species.

Participants were given a set of notes on the subject, and asked to read them before they attended the course. This new format encouraged discussion of both the main scenarios, but also, more generally, about how the participants would use anaesthetics in their own research projects. What was unknown to me at the time was that this style of teaching is described as the "flipped classroom” approach. This style of teaching has since gained considerable attention, and is particularly relevant when using on-line resources such as those found on researchanimaltraining.com. So what is being “flipped” and how do we move to using the approach in our courses?

Most of us will be familiar with “Bloom’s taxonomy”, perhaps through reading the discussion on learning outcomes and assessment in the EU Education and Training Framework. This concept for categorising cognitive tasks is decidedly “old school”, having been developed in 1956, but it was redeveloped and revised in 2001 (the version presented in the EU document). What isn’t shown in the framework document is Bloom’s original schematic of a pyramid of tasks with the most complex and demanding at the top (see below).

Picture 1

Consider for a moment how these tasks are handled in a typical training course. We provide the facts and basic concepts (“remembering“ and “understanding”) and perhaps explain some of them (“applying”). We then expect our course participants to be able to use this information in their research activities (“applying, analysing, evaluating and creating”). Since our students often attend our courses with almost no knowledge of the topics, it's not surprising that we focus our teaching time on the bottom sections of the pyramid. Suppose instead, we move this part of the course into student self-instruction through structured activities, and focus our face-to-face teaching on the upper sections of the pyramid. This lets us give most support to these more complex tasks, and encourages application of the students’ learning activities to “real world” situations. In other words, we “flip” the pyramid, and our approach to teaching our course.

Picture 2

So what self-instruction should we provide? This could be a recording of the lecture that you would normally have given, it could be a set of training notes, it could be one or more e-learning modules, or a combination of these activities. An advantage of using resources provided on researchanimaltraining.com is that you can track the progress of your students as they work through the modules and send out e-mails reminding them to complete content before you meet for a face-to-face session.

For the face-to-face sessions, we can then develop more complex tasks to draw upon the information from this self-instruction. Some browser-based applications can help with this. I have used Mentimeter for many years, both in face-to-face and on-line teaching. This, and similar tools, enable course instructors to build up scenarios, prompt interactivity with questions and provide immediate feedback, as well as giving you a record of the discussions. In my own teaching, I have also used Padlet for a more open-ended approach, particularly suited to recording small group activities or discussions.

As far as content goes, anaesthesia and analgesia is an easy topic – simply present a scenario: “A research group plans to anaesthetise ten rats to carry out a craniotomy. They propose using pentobarbital as the anaesthetic, and state that analgesics cannot be used because they are contraindicated after intracranial surgery”. This gives lots of scope for recalling and applying the information in the eLearning modules on Research Animal Training, but it can go much further. Further questions could include - why ten rats are being used, why rats are being used at all, whether the appropriate approvals have been obtained, how the rats are being housed and handled and what refinements are in place?

So how might you apply this to topics beyond just anaesthesia? Once again, a scenario can be used: “A research group wants to assess the efficacy of a new anti-cancer drug using a tumour model in mice” could encompass law, ethics, 3Rs, health and safety, biology and husbandry, disease control (“let’s use SCID mice and a xenograft model”) and as the course tutor you can develop the discussion in a number of different directions. You could also start out the session with a short quiz on one or more of the modules, and then use the answers to encourage questions and discussion – using Mentimeter or a similar tool works well for this. Another alternative would be to present a series of images of animal rooms, labs, techniques etc. showing sub-optimal approaches and inviting comments and critiques from the participants.

The type of research, species used and topics can be tailored to suit the particular audience and your Institute’s specific research programs. You may also want to expand on specific topics or learning outcomes that are not covered in the self-paced materials, but these more formal sessions can be integrated as 10 minute “sound-bites” rather than being lost in a series of longer monologues. Of course, once you recognise common areas that need reinforcing in this way, you could record your own 10 minute “TED Talk” and provide it to the student’s in advance.

The face-to-face content of your course should also include the opportunity to introduce key members of the animal facility team, to run a question and answer session on local processes and practices and reinforce key messages surrounding animal use and the development of your institute’s “Culture of Care”. This final area requires application of the top two sections of the pyramid (evaluating and creating) and may not fit neatly into the approach outlined above. Your students, however, will be better prepared to carry out these more complex tasks if you have supported their learning with a “flipped” approach: “Remembering and Understanding” as preparation, “Applying and Analysing” during your face-to-face sessions, and encouragement to continue to develop this post-course. Finally, remember that when using Research Animal Training, the preparatory materials will always be available to students to refresh their recall of the factual material.