Certainly not small change: Evaluating the physical therapy program at U of A

17 August 2010

People say change isn't always easy, and evaluating change is a chore unto itself.

Trish Manns, physical therapy professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, has received $88,731 from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund to take on this challenge. She wants to determine if recent curriculum changes to the physical therapy program have affected the graduates' clinical decision-making skills.

In the last decade, 13 of the 14 Canadian physical therapy programs transitioned from a bachelor's degree to a master's level, with the U of A converting in 2003. The program decreased in length to 24 months and there is an increased emphasis on evidence-based practice skills and independent student learning.

"Even though the whole country switched, and even though schools in the United States switched, there's really nothing we could find that evaluates, 'What have the changes in curriculum done to clinical practice?'" said Manns.

Manns plans to examine the interacting influences of the training curriculum, clinical experience and the context of the workplace to determine how therapists make clinical decisions. She wants to know if the MSc PT graduates have the skills and knowledge to deliver high-quality rehabilitation and health care. Her teammates include Johanna Darrah, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy; Shannon Scott, professor in the Faculty of Nursing, and Joanne Profetto-McGrath, professor and vice-dean in the Faculty of Nursing. Manns says this research will help guide future curriculum revisions, ensuring the best teaching methods for U of A students.

"It's a study that we wanted funded quite badly because it really is an evaluation of our curriculum that we don't usually do," said Manns. "What are the therapists actually doing after they graduate? What are they actually doing in clinical practice and does it match what we taught them?"

Physical therapy student Kyle McIntosh thinks it's important to keep curriculum revisions in check.

"When you change the way you educate therapists, I think it's important to gauge how those changes affect the delivery of care," he says. "As a current student, I want to know that when I graduate after two years, I'll be just as prepared to deliver high-quality treatment as those students who spent four years in the program. It doesn't matter whether you have a master's or bachelor's designation behind your name. What matters is that you have the appropriate knowledge and skills to back it up."

The TLEF program, launched in 2006, supports innovative projects at the University of Alberta that create exceptional learning experiences and environments for students. The purpose of the fund is to support those engaged in teaching at the university, allowing them to improve their teaching skills, enhance their understanding of teaching and learning processes and provide teaching environments to optimize student learning.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.