Teaching and Learning Philosophy

The practice of occupational therapy is complex, deceptively so.
Given its complexity, best practice in occupational therapy requires a deep base of knowledge that helps students grow sustaining professional identities as occupational therapists. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association’s (AOTA) philosophy of occupational therapy education, that knowledge base must directly address the use of occupation in facilitating change, growth, adaptation, and occupational participation toward the goals of survival, self-actualization, health, and life quality.1

Occupational Therapy

Consistent with AOTA’s philosophy, our curriculum centers study on the core subject of human performance and participation in everyday occupations and contexts across the lifespan at both the masters and Ph.D. levels. Our curriculum thereby promotes subject-centered learning.2 Subject-centered learning is an alternative to expert-driven learning, in which all knowledge is assumed to be directly transferable from experts to students, much like pouring water into waiting vessels. Subject-centered learning is also an alternative to student-driven learning, in which students’ personal opinions are held to be ultimate and, therefore, they can think whatever they like about occupational therapy. In contrast to these alternatives, subject-centered learning requires students to engage in dynamic conversations and learning activities that link the curriculum’s core subject to a wide range of topics, practical skills, and direct experiences including those encountered in Level I and Level II fieldworks. These conversations and learning activities are thereby informed not only by students’ personal experiences, but also by the field’s historical traditions, philosophical and theoretical knowledge, current research, values, ethics and body of technical skills.

The complex practice of occupational therapy demands contextual knowers and integrative thinkers.3
Contextual knowers use critical thinking and sophisticated reasoning processes to connect the unique occupational needs and life situations of each client with the field’s current theory, research, and evaluation and intervention approaches, among other considerations. Our program’s emphasis on contextual knowing is aligned with AOTA’s philosophy of education, which stresses the importance of helping students integrate the profession’s philosophical and theoretical knowledge, values, beliefs, ethics and technical skills for broad application to people of all ages and abilities. Our program is thus also committed to integrative learning, an excellent method for helping students develop as contextual knowers. Integrative learning is promoted through sustained attention to the curriculum’s core subject and five related curriculum threads, or broad thematic areas of study, which cut across all courses:

  • Rigorous culture of inquiry
  • Foundations of performance and occupational participation
  • Optimizing performance and occupational participation
  • Teaching and learning
  • Professional identity and career.

This integrative curricular design helps students connect seemingly disparate areas of information, topics and experiences to the curriculum’s core subject at increasingly clearer, deeper and broader levels of understanding as they progress over two years of didactic and fieldwork education.
In addition to an integrative curricular design, faculty create learning situations in which students must make and evaluate connections across academic literature, research studies, cases, fieldwork experiences, practice settings, diverse populations and age groups, and so forth. Each course syllabus has a conceptual model that helps students interconnect course topics. Integrative teaching methods are also used such as study guides, problem-based learning, learning through discussion,4 writing across the curriculum and capstone learning experiences. The M.OT. and M.S. programs of study furthermore immerse students in fieldwork from the first semester onward in order to help students integrate theory and research with practice.

What does the program’s philosophy of teaching and learning philosophy imply for students?

Most fundamentally, our program’s philosophy of teaching and learning asks that students commit themselves to the challenge of active, engaged, self-directed learning. As suggested by the curriculum thread, rigorous culture of inquiry, students are expected to assume responsibility for their own learning and, thereby, to develop the habits and skills that they will need to grow into lifelong learners and scholar practitioners. Consistent with these expectations, students are asked to invest considerable time and effort in out-of-class preparation. Given this high level of preparation, class sessions are able to become dynamic learning environments in which all students contribute to their own and their peers’ learning via clarification and synthesis of new learning, application of new learning to practice and critical and creative thinking. Multiple learning activities, assignments and examinations are likewise explicitly designed to help students:

  • Integrate and build upon knowledge from concurrent or previous courses and fieldwork experiences;
  • Reflect on their professional development and strategies for future growth;
  • Translate and embed theory and research in professional interventions and actions; and
  • Adapt and apply skills learned in one situation to unfamiliar problems and challenges encountered in different situations.

In the long run, the program’s curriculum design and instructional methods reflect a deep commitment to creating educational experiences that parallel, and also help students to meet, the complex demands of contemporary practice in occupational therapy.

1 American Occupational Therapy Association (2007). The philosophy of occupational therapy education. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 678.

2 Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

3 Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and self-authorship: Constructive-developmental pedagogy. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

4 Rabow et al. (1994). William Fawcett Hill’s Learning Through Discussion (3rd Edition). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.