Like many undergraduate physiology instructors, most of the students I teach are targeting health professional graduate programs after they graduate. These future physicians, physician assistants, physical therapists, and occupational therapists are interested in the content of my physiology course, as it is often a prerequisite for their applications. However, in addition to the content of my course, I seek to develop and observe several core competencies that extend beyond subject matter knowledge. Various health professional organizations have identified a range of competencies they seek in applicants, and most centralized application services ask recommenders to address students’ level of attainment of these competencies.
One resource that I have found valuable is the Anatomy of an Applicant guide from the Association of American Medical Colleges which includes the 15 Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students. These competencies are endorsed by the AAMC Group on Student Affairs (GSA) Committee on Admissions (COA) and help communicate the standards expected of all applicants accepted into medical school.
The competencies are organized into three categories:
Preprofessional Competencies: service orientation, social skills, cultural competence, teamwork, oral communication, ethical responsibility to self and others, reliability and dependability, resilience and adaptability, and capacity for improvement.
Thinking and Reasoning Competencies: critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, and written communication.
Science Competencies: living systems and human behavior.
While a physiology course can obviously address science and thinking and reasoning competencies, there are also other opportunities to develop preprofessional competencies in class. By designing in-class activities in groups, I am able to observe students’ teamwork and oral communication skills. Oral exams, a technique I employ in my classes also allows me to observe oral communication skills. Cultural competency can be developed through emphasizing an inclusive classroom and incorporating diverse perspectives into the content included.
Not all of my students are targeting medical school, but there are similar competencies identified in other professions including physician assistant, physical therapy, and across multiple health professions. In fact, these overlapping competencies can be used as ways to connect students that are pursuing different career paths and highlight the similarities across professions.
One of the challenges of non-science competencies is how to evaluate a students’ achievement. We are all familiar with standardized exams that can assess the level of science knowledge, or thinking and reasoning capabilities. Less well-known and discussed are the emerging ways in which other competencies are assessed. Several programs now require applicants to take the CASPer exam, an open-response situational judgement test. According to CASPer, the exam assesses: collaboration, communication, empathy, equity, ethics, motivation, problem solving, professionalism, resilience, and self-awareness. Research has shown predictive validity of CASPer scores and national licensure outcomes which likely supports the increased use of this noncognitive assessment in the application process. In addition to standardized exams that can be used in application processes, it may be of interest to physiology educators to be aware of assessment tools for specific competencies such as cultural competence and resilience.
Whether one is formally assessing the desired competencies or informally observing them in the classroom and/or laboratory, it is clear that there will continue to be an increased interest in students’ capabilities beyond simply their scientific knowledge. As educators, it is important to try to support student development in these areas in our classrooms and design activities with this goal in mind.