Pharmacy program to discontinue cluster testing fall 2017

Collegian file photo.


Pharmacy majors will no longer have clusters in the fall.

Clusters, a style of test scheduling specific to the major, are a set of tests three days in a row, occurring once every four to six weeks. The exams covers the material in all the students’ pharmacy classes. Clusters have been in place for 20 years.

Before spring break, pharmacy students received an email and went to an information session with the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences dean to discuss the prospect of discontinuing clusters. After break, students were notified that faculty voted to eliminate the testing style.

Taylor Mogged, a first-year pre-pharmacy major, has not taken clusters yet, because the tests start in students’ first year of the graduate phase, or what other students would consider their junior year.

“I’m so relieved,” Mogged said. “Just hearing from older students, I was not excited. I’ve never experienced a cluster, so I didn’t know if I’d be good at that.”

Aaron Brown, a senior who is in his second year of pharmacy school, said the initial reaction from other students was “antagonistic.”

“But, the dean met with us, he was very graceful, and we brought forth concerns,” Brown said. “We weren’t exactly docile in letting him know we weren’t pleased with the idea, but he handled that tactfully, so I’ve grown to understand it more, and I’m not as antagonistic as I have been.”

COPHS Dean Robert Soltis came to Butler last fall. He was not familiar with the concept of clusters and when the first round came, he noticed a spike in stress and anxiety levels. He started to ask the faculty if the clusters were still serving the purpose for which they were intended.

“That really was the drive behind it,” Soltis said. “I think clusters was a good idea at the time, it served its purpose, but as we learn new techniques and get more data and information, we can get changes that are informed. I think this was a good example of us doing a very thoughtful dive into it and the result was something that will improve the student learning.”

In October, Soltis put together a task force responsible for researching clusters’ purpose, the advantages and disadvantages, if they are better than traditional testing and if not and what could replace them.

“The idea was to maybe make [clusters] more effective, but there isn’t really any data that clusters are more effective,” Kimberly Beck, task force member and professor, said. “But there is data that more frequent assessment lead to long-term learning.”

Beck said clusters are sprints but long-term learning is a marathon.

Soltis and faculty members met twice with junior and senior class officers to discuss the change.

Maddy Eisenhut, a junior in her first year of pharmacy school, is the president of her pharmacy class.

“I wasn’t for it in the beginning either, but it’s hard from another person’s point of view because they haven’t been in the meetings with the faculty and the dean,” Eisenhut said. “I’ve been there and I can see how hard they’re trying to make this work. They really do want us to succeed; they’re trying to make it easier for us to learn, make us retain stuff.”

The students want to know what their classes will look like without clusters.

Spencer Snyder, a senior who is in his second year of pharmacy school, said they were not given outlines about how the classroom work will change and if there will be more assignments or if classes will still be test-based.

Eisenhut said the program will hold an orientation for current first and second pharmacy years where students will see a master schedule of tests, assessments and projects.

“[The faculty are] looking at the master schedule and they’ll go over it several times,” Eisenhut said.

Soltis said if a student has a concern over the arrangement of assessments, that student should talk with a professor.

“It’s not like this is cast in stone and no one’s going to make changes or purposefully make it more difficult for students,” Soltis said.

Professors are also given more flexibility and autonomy without clusters.

“They can pick shorter assessment periods which helps the students put together smaller blocks of material,” Soltis said. “They can do quizzes, projects, more exams, fewer exams. The faculty now have the opportunity to be more creative in how they interact with students through assessments versus a standardized schedule.”

Beck said she might do four or five exams per semester taken at more logical breaks in material than the standard three clusters.

The orientation, a new event for older pharmacy students, will also suggest different ways to study.

Snyder said studying for clusters is a “new philosophy,” but he has gotten used to it and believes he scores better with clusters.

“We were fine freshman and sophomore year but that wasn’t pharmacy, that wasn’t professional school — it was the core classes, 100-level classes,” Snyder said. “Next year I’m taking one 600-level class and everything else is 500 or above. Will I be able to do what I used to do freshman, sophomore, high school even?”

Soltis said students should maybe address their time management skills without clusters.

During the fourth year of pharmacy, students go on rotations. Soltis said many faculty have commented that students execute their day-to-day responsibilities, but for long-term projects, many students cram instead of spreading their time evenly.

“I think this will help them short-term on their clinical rotations to be that time management expert and that leads onto when they’re out in the real world,” Soltis said. “Once you start having family, paying bills, social activities — it comes down to choices and you have to know what’s the priority and where to put your time.”

Beck said she has “no illusion” or “false belief” that students will not cram or not be stressed. Butler’s student counseling center told the task force they receive a lot of pharmacy students related to academic stress. However, Beck hopes with a non-cluster schedule, stress and cramming will decrease.

Brown does not think ending clusters will reduce their stress.

“We’re a professional-face program,” Brown said. “We’re going into the world after six years and [being] doctors. It’s supposed to be stressful. It might distribute the stress a little bit, but you have people coming in here that are just hard-wired to be stressed out about things.”

While Brown said nobody is a fan of clusters, he likes them because he knows how to manage them. But, he said he does not think clusters will make him a competent pharmacist.

“Clusters is really promoting the environment, I think, of passing tests, but that’s not beneficial for the long-term practice of pharmacy,” Brown said. “So the idea that the dean brought up was repetition, varying ways of assessing knowledge that would promote that recall, promote that retention.”

Eisenhut said it will probably take a semester for students to “get over the hump.”

“As bright as the students are here at Butler, I think people are perfectly capable,” Eisenhut said. “I just think they’re very nervous.”

Students also do not know what will happen if this new plan fails or if the program starts to see a drop in test scores. Currently, Butler pharmacy students score well on the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination, which measures the competency and knowledge of a potential future pharmacist.

“They have the philosophy that it’s better to change while we’re ahead and stay ahead of the game,” Snyder said. “I personally have the, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy.”

Snyder said if anything, this change will teach students how to adapt, which is an important lesson in an ever-changing medical field.

The orientation will take place Aug. 22  before classes start.