The research programmes in health professional education are focussed on better understanding how people learn best, how teachers can teach best, how expertise develops and how assessment can play an optimal role in all of this.
Perhaps this is not the type of research that most people are familiar with, but it is very important that we constantly try to understand better how one of the core duties of our university works.
Research into health professional education is not seeking to answer the question whether current education is good or bad, but how it can be improved. This is much like the health professions. The most important question is not whether for example current medicine is good or bad, but how we can do better tomorrow.
For this we need various types of research:
- Fundamental research to increase our understanding of fundamental processes of clinical competence, problem solving, expertise development, memory processes, understanding, professionalism, etc. So we try to understand the nature of these processes; what makes an expert and expert and a non-expert a non-expert. Is it merely the amount of knowledge or is it also the organisation of this knowledge in memory? How does an expert recognise a problem as being similar to what s/he has encountered before? What areas of the brain are associated with expert en which with novice problem solving?
- Design-based research to help us develop better teaching, learning and assessment methods. What works and what needs to be improved to make an educational approach work even better? What adjustments and adaptations need to be made to make it more flexible to individual student needs? Or in another domain; what methods are best for selecting the best possible students into the course?
- Justification research to demonstrate the superiority of one method over another. Does a new method lead to better learning, deeper understanding, better problem solving or in the long run better health care outcomes?
Because all these are complicated question, single studies are often not sufficient to produce definitive answers. Instead health professional education research encompasses the whole gamut of methodologies. Some are very natural science-like, such as fMRI studies into clinical problem solving and the role of the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. Others are much more social science-like, such as ethnographic studies into cultures of supervision. Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies are used and both a logic positivist and social constructivist views on the nature of knowledge (epistemologies) are embraced.
At the moment around 20 staff members are involved to a more or lesser extent in health professional education research, but the number is increasing rapidly.
Flinders’ research has links to researchers and research centres not only in Australia and New Zealand but all around the world.