For USC hybrid physical therapy students, immersion is everything

The university’s unique program requires students to spend nearly 60 days in on-campus immersions, giving them the opportunity to refine their skills and solidify everything they’ve learned online.

January 03, 2020 Stephanie Corral

When USC launched its three-year hybrid online/on-campus Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program in 2018, Michael Andersen had initial concerns.

“I didn’t know if we could successfully teach psychomotor skills and clinical reasoning in a hybrid format,” said Andersen, an assistant professor of clinical physical therapy at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy.

But his fears were soon assuaged when he realized the efficacy behind the program’s in-person immersion experiences.

“When it comes to hands-on skills, hybrid students report the same level of confidence in their skills as our residential students, which is a good thing,” he said. “Hybrid students come to immersion hungry for feedback from faculty and with an eager intensity to absorb all they can while on campus.”

Immersion training USC PT
Faculty member Liz Bottrell coaches hybrid DPT student Cameo Beard through a Thomas Test, assessing the hip flexor flexibility of classmate Megan DeMots. (Photo/Nate Jensen)

During each of the approximately 12 required immersions that are scheduled regularly throughout the program, DPT students spend between three and 12 days on campus, refining and being tested on the course material they have learned virtually through videos, assignments and livestreamed classes.

Immersion week is about reinforcing what you’ve learned

“The immersion week should not be a time to learn new things,” said Kate Havens, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy. “It’s meant to be a time to review, anchor and practice the material that they’ve learned.”

Immersions typically start with a no-fault mock practical exam that helps students identify areas to focus on during the week, which culminates with a practical exam.

Immersion days are long and the stakes are high, especially for students like Megan DeMots who don’t have nearby classmates to collaborate with once immersion ends.

“I’m the only one in my class that lives in the Pacific Northwest, so getting this hands-on time with classmates at immersion is extremely valuable to me,” said DeMots, who described her first immersion experience as intense but rewarding.

“I feel like my brain has expanded at least five times,” she added. “I think I can speak for my cohort when I say that every day we all had a ton of ‘a-ha’ moments.”

For Sonia Williams, the immersion experience shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of her studying habits.

“Immersion is the perfect time to make sure we truly understand the content, rather than simply being able to regurgitate that content on paper,” said Williams, who lives in Philadelphia.

To call the bump in knowledge she has received through immersion enormous would be an understatement, she added.

“I entered immersion with limited confidence in my manual technique,” she said. “However, almost immediately upon completing exams, I was able to relax and see how much information I had internalized. I feel grateful for the immersion experience, as it offered me a concentrated stretch of time that was solely focused on honing my hands-on skills.”

Increasing the confidence of doctor of physical therapy students

Planning an immersion is a feat in itself because there are so many moving parts, Andersen explained. Faculty must plan the calendar of daily events for the week and recruit instructors for all the coursework, as well as arrange special events and activities.

immersion PT
Hybrid DPT student Jason Tabor gauges his classmate’s neutral lumbar spine position in preparation for a Thomas Test, which will assess the flexibility of her hip flexor muscles. (Photo/Nate Jensen)

“These students work so hard away from campus to learn very difficult concepts and skills,” he said. “I hope that being on campus in front of faculty helps solidify what they have learned at home, provides them with helpful guidance for their skill performance and clinical reasoning, and generates confidence in their practice as they continue their journey to becoming physical therapists.”

In Andersen’s patient management course, students get the chance to attend an in-patient hospital experience where they can shadow a physical therapist. For Jason Tabor, the experience was one of his favorite parts of immersion because he conducted a subject interview for the first time.

“My confidence for subject interviewing was relatively low, but now I feel like I can run into any patient room and get what I need to get,” said Tabor, who lives in Palmdale.

Back home in Portland, Ore., DeMots keeps her newly acquired skills fresh by practicing on community volunteers every week.

“What I have found most helpful is practicing on others that are familiar with physical therapy because they have a bit of an idea of how my hands-on skills should feel,” she said.

A supportive, close-knit cohort of DPT students and faculty

Because the class size is limited to 48 students, the cohort is very close-knit, which Tabot said helps bolster morale during immersions.

“Due to the program’s hybrid format, we know each other’s personalities, so everyone looks out for the other person,” he explained. “People can get drained or burned out, but everyone is great at checking in with each other and really pushing the person next to them to be the best they can be.”

Tabor added that the enthusiasm and support from faculty is also invaluable during immersion.

“As students, it helps us tremendously,” he said. “It keeps us upbeat to know that faculty are just as excited about this stuff as we are, and excited to teach us and be patient with us. The faculty are so amazing in terms of being there and staying extra hours to really help us hone and refine our skills.”

Those extra hours really come in handy when it comes to prepping for the practical exam at the end of immersion, which was DeMots’ least favorite part.

“It’s an unavoidable part of the immersion, and it can be very stressful to be put on the spot to perform these skills,” she said. “It’s a lot of information that you have to be able to recall in such a short amount of time, but I walked out feeling pretty confident in my performance.”

While the hybrid DPT program is still new, students and faculty alike report that it is a rewarding learning environment.

“When I was deciding on the program, I put a lot of trust in USC because I knew that they would not create this program without being fully invested in it, and I have not been disappointed,” she said. “I have felt supported every step of the way.”