Alexander Salava, 43, has worked as Clinical Lecturer in Dermatology at the University of Helsinki since 2017. Originally, he was drawn to dermatology by the visual aspect of this medical speciality: the treatment outcomes are visible in the patients’ skin.
The same visuality also manifests in the teaching provided by Salava. He is particularly interested in methods of perceptual learning, which can be used to teach doctors important skills in detection and diagnosis. For example, in digital teaching modules, students must choose the images of nevi that should be investigated in more detail in case of skin cancer. Rapid repetition of images and immediate feedback develop students’ intuitive recognition skills.
Teaching based on modules can be modified, for example, so that students must evaluate reasons for their diagnosis, or combine their own analysis with the method: why did I make these choices?
“Through varying and rapid repetition, students’ confidence increases. It’s useful to immediately see whether the answer was correct,” Salava says.
According to Salava, observational learning based on perceptual learning methods functions both online in digital settings as well as it does in contact instruction and self-study.
“It’s particularly interesting that perceptual learning modules can be modified to match the level of each individual student: for instance, the system can repeat tasks where the student has made mistakes, or if they are sailing smoothly, the time to complete the assignment is shortened. This adaptability also helps maintain study motivation.”
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Feedback educates teachers
According to Salava, motivation is key to teachers’ success as well.
“Teachers must genuinely like teaching. You should also ask yourself what you would expect yourself if you were a student on this course.”
Salava divides medical education and growth into a medical professional into three parts: you begin with extensive theoretical instruction in lectures or groups, either on site or over remote connections, or combinations thereof. The second part is clinical instruction, or patient care where apprentices learn from masters in practice. The third is a component of self-study and motivation, which starts in the course of studies and carries through the professional career.
“Ideally, universities should offer and develop all three of them. But above all, clinical instruction must always have a strong foothold.”
Salava’s personal positive experiences of teachers, colleagues and training in university pedagogy have developed him as a teacher, but the feedback provided by students is also educational.
“Students have given me a lot of ideas. Positive feedback provides a boost, but you also have to accept corrective feedback with humility.”
Research on teaching methods elicits interest
Salava belongs to several research groups, heads a group of his own and supervises doctoral researchers. He is also interested in pedagogical research on visual perceptual learning in medicine.
“I collaborate with education specialists and psychologists investigating visual perception and learning. This collaboration engendered, among other things, the concept of perceptual learning modules in dermatology courses. We have also released scholarly publications on how visual perceptual learning can be used in medicine,” Salava says.
“I also like the concept of blended learning, according to which teaching is offered through many channels in various forms, including perceptual learning modules, self-study assignments based on books, hybrid lectures and videos. Students can choose the channel they wish to focus on. I don’t think all students will continue to appear in person at compulsory lectures.”
Salava believes that, in the future, various methods of perceptual learning will increase in significance in medical teaching.
“Visual perceptual learning is an emerging field, and I believe it has a lot of potential at the University.”