A New Curriculum for 21st Century Veterinary Medicine

The revised Doctor of Veterinary Medicine curriculum encourages team-based learning and early entry into the clinics.

Ash Wells and teammates speak with Bill Huckle.
First-year student Ash Wells (second from left) and her teammates speak with Bill Huckle, associate professor of cell biology and pharmacology, during an integrative session in early September.

Megan Graham of Princeton, West Virginia, knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian from a young age.  After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Marshall University, she completed a master’s degree in reproductive physiology at West Virginia University and worked for two years as a large animal technician at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. 

“I was able to get an inside look at the students as they were coming through the large animal clinic, and they really seemed to be competent and know what they were doing,” said Graham, who grew up with horses and hopes to be a large animal or mixed practice veterinarian in the future. “It really made me feel like this was going to be a good program.”

What helped convince Graham, who is now a first-year student at the veterinary college, to apply was the promise of a new Doctor of Veterinary Medicine curriculum that integrates the basic and clinical sciences, incorporates team-based learning, allows early entry into the clinics, and introduces pass/fail grading. Graham  and her peers in the Class of 2020 joined the veterinary college in August as the first cohort in the new curriculum.

“I absolutely love it,” she said. “Within the first week of classes, we were doing hands-on activities with cows, horses, and dogs, and then within the first eight weeks, we did physical exams on these animals. It has been very hands-on, and that has really helped me connect what we are learning in the classroom and  be able to apply it quickly afterwards.”

The new curriculum combines the basic and applied sciences through integrated courses based on function. During their first semester, students spend the first eight weeks learning about The Normal Animal before moving on to Dealing with Threats and then Moving and Sensing in the spring. In their second year, students take courses with similar-sounding names: Breathing and Circulating, Eating and Eliminating, The Next Generation, and Healthy Populations.

“In the first course, we have incorporated anatomy, physiology, radiology, histology, clinical techniques, nutrition, pharmacology, and immunology,” said Kevin Lahmers, clinical associate professor of anatomic pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and the course leader for The Normal Animal. “They actually have animal handling and restraint on day two of the curriculum, whereas it was in year two of the old curriculum. Students have animal labs almost weekly during their first course to get them developing those skills and gaining that confidence earlier.”

DVM curriculum overview graphic

A Team Approach

students in the lab
During the session, students rotated through stations in the Multi-Disciplinary Lab to better understand the skeletal anatomy of the distal forelimb.

The curriculum also affords more opportunities for team-based learning, enabling students to share their different perspectives with each other. “For me, I have a lot of large animal experience, so I can bring that,” Graham said. “Other people have had small animal experience, so we can all come together and apply what we know and share it with each other.”

Ash Wells of Randallstown, Maryland, who joined the Class of 2020 after studying natural resources at a northern California university and working as an organic vegetable farmer for six years, agreed that the team assignments were a positive, even though it made her and her classmates step outside of their comfort zones at first. “I love my team,” Wells said. “We do stuff together all the time and are like a family.”

Wells also appreciated another part of the curriculum: integrative sessions. During these sessions, student teams are presented with a problem and rotate through stations where they address the problem with faculty experts.

“With this new curriculum, we’ll have one class but we have many professors working in that class,” said Wells, who hopes to pursue small animal medicine after graduation. “The integrative sessions are ideally going to be on a subject that involves all the professors who have been teaching us for the past couple of weeks.”

Graham added that the integrative sessions allowed for interaction with faculty members outside of a traditional lecture hall. “You’re broken up into smaller groups when you work in these stations, so it gives you an opportunity for more one-on-one instruction,” Graham said. “It’s one thing to be sitting in a class and learning all of these concepts, but it really helps connect the dots when you get to apply them to cases.”

Faculty members have also been increasing their collaborations. In fact, 35 of them are a part of the instructional team.

“There’s a great deal of time and effort required of the faculty to completely revamp what they have done and the way they have taught — to trim it down to the concepts that are essential,” said Lahmers, who also teaches throughout the curriculum.

Early Clinical Experiences

Greg Daniel, professor of radiology and head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, discusses a radiograph with students during the integrative session.

According to Jennifer Hodgson, associate dean for professional programs, this extra work will pay dividends for students who will benefit from the additional hands-on learning and early entry into the clinics and for faculty who will have their hand in preparing future doctors of veterinary medicine.

“When we developed the new curriculum, we reviewed other models in both veterinary and human medicine, looked at emerging trends, sought input from a wide range of stakeholders, and moved forward with an approach that will best prepare students for 21st century veterinary medicine,” Hodgson said. In the previous curriculum, students completed three years of classroom instruction followed by 12 months of clinical rotations. Students in the new model have a first round of clinical experiences in the summer after their second year and another round after a free summer between their third and fourth year. According to Hodgson, the amount of time in the classroom and clinics remains the same and students still choose a track in small animal, equine, food animal, mixed species, or public and corporate veterinary medicine.

Early entry into the clinics also appeals to students eager to gain real-world experience. “I feel like we are moving at a pretty good pace because we are trying to learn everything we need to know to enter the clinics,” Graham added. “It’s exciting to know that we are going to be able to get that extra experience a little bit earlier.”