Critical Appraisal – learning from the experts

I was recently lucky enough to spend a weekend locked in a hotel learning about critical appraisal at a two day workshop run by the Critical Appraisal Company.  The plan was to build my knowledge while picking up tips from expert tutors.

Like all good NHS activity it started early both days and had fairly average coffee.  The venue was smart enough and we were well fed.  With the shorter events I run timing is definitely important in terms of fitting in to available slots.  I wonder if anyone has systematically assessed which times of day are best for scheduling sessions aimed at NHS staff?  While I do not offer food and drink at my courses we do need to think about these sort of hygiene factors – how do we minimise barriers to taking the opportunity to learn?

Ahead of the course (from when we paid and for six months afterwards) we were issued with a login for elearning materials – you can see the contents list (they also sell access to these without the face to face training session). We were strongly encouraged to complete these ahead of time and they added hugely to the value of the session in my view.  The elearning takes the form of narrated slides with accompanying handouts.  The tutor on the course mentioned that these will be updated soon but I found them steady and clear.  You can jump from section to section and replay tricky bits.  Something similar would be a great addition to the brief courses I run both for learning before and after (or without any input).  Even in a two day sessions some sections went by very quickly and knowing I could review things later was a great reassurance.

On arrival we were issued with some very slick handouts.  There was a workbook that had examples, exercises and reminders of major points.  Alongside this was a tricky to physically handle A3 book. This consisted of a series of full papers from journals with appropriate IP permissions.  The paper was printed down the middle of the page with boxes either side for practical exercises aimed at pulling out aspects of the paper, checking calculations and building skills.  Finally there was a copy of the new edition of the book (Doctor’s guide to critical appraisal – a buy recommendation from me) by the course tutor (and partner).  Throughout the materials there was cross referencing to the relevant sections of the book and of the elearning.  All in all this was a very slick and integrated set of materials.

The content of the course was very similar to the elearning.  The big difference was the additional degree of elaboration and the use of anecdotes to make it less dry. This was very much in line with the way I try and present similar material. Extensive use was made of clickers to add interactivity and test understanding.  I think this was perhaps a little over done as we ended up running well behind schedule which impacted negatively on the time spent on aspects later in the agenda.  It was interesting to see the extent to which people were still not grasping key concepts. The clickers provided a non threatening way to explain where people were going wrong and bring out helpful illustrations of various learning points. I know colleagues have had some success with online polls and it merits further thought.

With the full weekend to work with the session did include much of the methodological background that I have largely dropped from my sessions.  I could see it was helpful for people but I think elearning and other options will be a better way to cover this in a tighter time scale. The explanation of randomisation techniques was helpful as this was an area I know less well and it may be something that warrants more attention than most librarians slides I have seen tend to give it.

We spent a lot of time looking at two by two contingency tables and this is something I will be adding into my sessions.  At present I cover various CER, EER, ARR, RRR, NNT calculations using an example and point to information on the table method in a handout but I think this is an oversight. So much power is made available to people to check results and I think it warrants some time.

Generally I came away feeling happy about the quality of the sessions I run. I focus hard on the practical application of appraisal – why something matters with a bit less detail about what it is. The course is excellent and I would recommend it for people looking to build their skills. Librarians who have revised their subject should have no concerns about running introductory sessions.  My impression is that librarians attend a lot more trainer the trainer sessions on critical appraisal than they deliver. People should take the plunge!