Susan Armstrong recognized for residents’ online education during the pandemic

Feb 25, 2021

Susan ArmstrongDr. Susan Armstrong is currently completing her fourth year in the Anatomical Pathology Residency Program in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology (LMP) in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and is the current Chief Resident.

She has various teaching responsibilities, but her proactive approach to changing residents’ education to an online format during COVID-19 has resulted in her being awarded The Avrum Gottlieb Award for Curriculum Development and Teaching Excellence in Training by LMP and, more recently, the PARO Trust Fund’s Resident Teaching Award from the University of Toronto.

As a pathology resident, Susan is part of a cohort which rotates through different subspecialities of pathology and laboratories in hospitals across the Greater Toronto Area. Her day involves sectioning surgical specimens from patients and inspecting these samples under the microscope to establish diagnoses. She provides important information that can contribute to the understanding of a patient's prognostic course and can impact patient management.

In addition to their rich experiential journey, a large part of what residents do is training others. They have opportunities to educate their peers, staff, and students across multiple programs.

“As a resident, or any stage of medical training, you're always learning and teaching, it’s a constant give and take,” says Susan. “I enjoy the challenge of trying to understand something at the level that allows you to teach it. You have to truly understand something to be able to explain it in a dozen different ways which is necessary to ensure the person you're trying to teach can understand the concept. I find it a more engaging way to learn as I am studying a lot of content and trying to master it.”

Residents across all five years of the program normally take part in ‘Academic half days’ where they participate in formal teaching sessions run by hospital laboratory medicine staff such as Staff Pathologists, Pathologists’ Assistants (PAs), and by their peers. In the summer this program shifts to specific learning opportunities for each year group.

Susan had long been interested in developing and marketing this educational aspect online. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she seized the opportunity to put her ideas into motion. She led the project, with support from administrative staff, PAs and residents, creating and developing online modules to replace the traditional in person lecture-based teaching of first- and second-year pathology residents.

Traditional education consisted of a three-hour lecture from a PA and a senior resident. Each week there would be a different topic such as gastrointestinal pathology, breast pathology, etc.

The new online modules provide the same content, with the bonus of being self-paced and available for residents to review whenever they need a refresher. The modules also contain additional content such as recommended textbooks, links to key papers, helpful YouTube videos, and a quiz. Some of the residents and PAs even made additional videos to explain particularly challenging concepts or to go through very important, or high-yield, cases.

Susan’s approach gave the curriculum a personal touch, sorely needed during the pandemic where in-person time is absent, by conducting and recording Zoom interviews with residents and staff to allow junior residents to get to know them better.

As one nominator commented, “This was an excellent, invaluable initiative that Susan came up with, executed in a timely matter and remarkably successfully.”

“I’ve benefited from multiple teaching mentors here. There are so many amazing teachers within LMP and the Anatomical Pathology program,” explains Susan, “Some teachers, like Dr. Carlo Hojilla, devote a huge amount of time and energy to developing novel methods of teaching. Dr. Hojilla is finding ways of making education more accessible, moving things online and making things more interactive, even before COVID. This innovative approach has been a huge inspiration for me.”

“This is a resource that will stay with the program for a long time and has ensured continuity in resident education, not only maintaining the status quo, but improving it,” commented another nominator.

In receiving these awards, Susan has been recognized for her leadership and innovation in developing the online course.

“I am so humbled, honoured and surprised to receive these awards,” says Susan, “So many other people were involved in these modules. I particularly could not have done it without the PAs and residents who contributed the module content, Paula Nixon (Postgraduate Education Officer), and the support of the training committee.”

“It's really incredible that people decided to nominate me and write letters on my behalf. That was just incredibly nice of them. It means a lot to me that I'm supported by the department. I will do my best to continue my teaching efforts going forward so that I can try to be worthy of this award.”

Read more

Find out who else received an award at the LMP Celebration of Excellence 2020

Dr. Hojilla in Carlo Hojilla uses his own experience as a resident to create an award-winning course

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