How a Quick Conversation Can Improve Learning

By Jenny Van Amburgh, PharmD, RPh, FAPhA, BCACP, CDE; Brittany Schmutz, BA; Hannah Kwon, PharmD Student; & Jose Roman, PharmD Student

If you ask anyone passionate about education why they teach, many of them will tell you that they love seeing their students succeed. Helping pharmacy students develop into great pharmacists, however, isn’t always easy and many students may encounter some obstacles along the way to their success. The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education Standard 17 states that colleges and schools must develop, implement, and assess policies and procedures related to student progression and provide detection and early intervention processes.1 Students are often required to achieve certain GPAs at different points in their curriculum and meet progression requirements each year. This creates an increased sense of pressure on students which can lead to them reaching for a calculator and finding out the lowest grade they can possibly get on the final to pass the course. . This leads us to ask, “Are students really learning the material? Or are they simply studying for a grade?”

There is no question that the pharmacy curriculum builds upon itself; biology builds a foundation to physiology that then paves the way to pharmacology and therapeutic disease management. However, we have noticed that many “at risk” students, students who are at a risk of non-progression, do not recognize these connections until late in their pharmacy education. These students tend to study the material rather than learn the material thus creating a weak foundation for when they take advanced classes.

One-on-One Sessions Made a Difference
We scheduled 30 minute individual, one-on-one sessions with students to develop effective learning strategies to enhance learning as it relates to lecture objectives. These one-on-one sessions were modeled after Dr. Saundra Yancy McGuire’s book: Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition.2 During these sessions, the students focused on the study habits they utilize during four phases:

  • Pre-class preparation: How does the student prepare material for the class prior to the lecture?
  • Class time: How does the student take notes during class? How engaged is the student during lecture?
  • Post-class learning: How does the student study for material after a class? How does the student learn the material?
  • Post-assessment reflection: How effective were the student’s study habits? Did learning truly occur?

From these sessions, we identified that the majority of students focused their time on post-class learning and that the ‘at-risk’ students needed to develop new, more effective learning strategies moving forward. Students were encouraged to reframe their minds and reflect on the following:

1. How can I learn from my previous exam performance to enhance future achievement?

2. How can I modify my current study habits to promote learning?

And most importantly:

3. How is the material I am learning today related to future classes and my future profession as a pharmacist?

Students were advised to spend more time on pre-class preparation so they could actively learn during class time. Post-class time could then be used to focus on reinforcing concepts or knowledge obtained from class. Students were also taught how to reflect on their learning strategies after assessments to determine the types of errors they were making and the areas they had difficulty in. The students that participated in the learning strategy sessions had an average increase of 6% for subsequent exam scores during the semester.

Taking Steps to See Overall Improvement
From our individual sessions (~20 per semester), we discovered that all students, not only ‘at-risk’ students, would benefit from changing their focus from just studying to actively learning. We restructured our learning strategies sessions and now include large group sessions that are open to all students with the opportunity to have a subsequent one-on-one session. Our goal is to shift the students’ mindset from studying material to learning material and develop pharmacists who are lifelong learners. In many cases, pharmacy students are experiencing a rigorous comprehensive education with a cumulative curriculum for the first time. Approaching students early on in their education to reinforce the importance of self-directed learning strategies could be the difference between a good student and an exemplary student.

What learning strategies can your program adapt to improve student learning?


  1. Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Standards 2016. Available at:
  2. McGuire SY, McGuire S, Angelo TA. Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing; 2015.

Jenny Amburgh

Jenny Van Amburgh is a Clinical Professor and Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at Northeastern University, Bouvé College of Health Sciences – School of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include active learning and teaching methodologies, faculty / peer evaluation processes, faculty development, and metacognition/mindfulness learning strategies. In her free time, Jenny enjoys spending time with her family, watching her daughters dance, boating, health / wellness activities (yoga, running), sewing, crocheting, and traveling.


Brittany Schmutz is an Academic Coordinator at Northeastern University, Bouvé College of Health Sciences – School of Pharmacy and a graduate student in the Bouvé College of Health Science Counseling Psychology program. In her free time, Brittany enjoys the gym, reading, and going on adventures with her husband.

Hannah Kwon_profile photo

Hannah Kwon is a P4 pharmacy student studying at Northeastern University- School of Pharmacy. In her free time, Hannah enjoys knitting, running, and reading mystery novels.

Jose Roman_profile

Jose Roman is a P4 pharmacy student at Northeastern University- School of Pharmacy. In his free time, Jose enjoys video games, being the Dungeonmast for his D&D group, and playing with his mini dachshund, Phoebe.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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