Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence

ACIE Award 2011

Innovative Instructional Approach to Foster Self-Directed Learning


Play the above video to learn more about virtual patient cases.

All graduates of higher education must demonstrate competence in self-directed learning, a core curricular outcome of the teaching mission at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. Neal Benedict, Pharmacy and Therapeutics, explained the goal of his project, Innovative Instructional Approach to Foster Self-Directed Learning, which was to “modify the pedagogy at the School of Pharmacy by integrating educational technology with the androgogical principles of self-directed learning in order to support learners in exercising their autonomy.”

The project provided students access to virtual patient software developed by the Laboratory for Educational Technology at the University of Pittsburgh (vpSim - Decision Simulation, available at to use on their own outside of the classroom. Each session in vpSim was built using a branched-outcome model in which students were presented with a challenge, given choices, and then provided with a consequence specific to their choice. This model gave students the opportunity to

  • recognize knowledge deficits;
  • develop learning goals;
  • establish learning resources;
  • implement a plan;
  • and monitor for success of the plan.

Benedict was able to compare the learning outcomes from teaching virtual patient cases complemented by social learning (i.e. large group discussion) to conventional teaching methods. Validated pre- test, post-test, and final examination scores of the “control” group were compared to the corresponding scores of the “intervention” group (virtual patient teaching case). Control group data was taken from the Spring 2011 semester, while intervention group data will be taken from the Spring 2012 semester.

The virtual patient cases could be used in other University of Pittsburgh health sciences schools. Therefore, this instructional strategy would be appropriate in any curriculum that recognizes self-directed learning as a curricular outcome.