Education Leadership Conference

If you were to stop learning anything new in your area of specialization, how long would it be before you were only half as competent in meeting the demands of your clients?

That’s the question Greg Neimeyer, PhD, associate executive director of the Office of Continuing Education in Psychology in APA’s Education Directorate, posed to participants at APA’s 2010 Education Leadership Conference. The most common response? Five to 10 years.

This notion of “half life” is not only a useful measure for measuring the obsolescence of professional knowledge, said Neimeyer. It also underscores the vital importance of robust continuing education (CE) and other forms of lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, he said, it’s not clear that psychologists are doing as much as they should when it comes to lifelong learning. CE mandates in many states help, he said, citing results from his own research. A survey of licensed psychologists in North America revealed that only 2 percent of psychologists in states with mandates can be described as “CE laggards,” compared with almost 20 percent in states without such mandates.

“But the real question — where the rubber meets the road — is what difference does it make?” said Neimeyer. “The answer is we don’t have an idea.”

Almost all the research on CE within psychology focuses on participant satisfaction, he explained. Psychologists resist the idea of being evaluated on whether they have learned something and applied that knowledge to their practices, he added.

Emerging models of CE may be more effective than what Neimeyer described as the ineffective but typical “spray-and-pray” approach in which “the presenter sprays out information and prays that some of it sticks.”

Promising alternatives include problem-based learning, intentional learning in which participants outline their goals ahead of time, learning by teaching others and “cognitive apprenticeships,” a type of active, supervised tutorial with plenty of feedback.

Medicine offers additional models. Point-of-service learning, for example, takes advantage of what Neimeyer called “optimal teaching moments” by providing information that physicians need when they need it, rather than making learning something they do outside the workplace. “Academic detailing” programs bring objective individuals into the workplace to summarize the literature on specific topics, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, for groups of health-care professionals. Also potentially useful are protocols, flow charts and checklists.

Although there are still no “ironclad best practices” in CE, said Neimeyer, the Institute of Medicine has identified factors related to positive outcomes. These include tailoring education to learners’ needs, using case studies or other simulations, integrating interaction into programs, giving learners an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, using multimedia and exposing students to information repeatedly.

“I look for a day when every professional development experience is an opportunity for discovery, application and genuine education,” Neimeyer concluded.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.