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Elayne Ansara, PharmD, BCPS, BCPP
Residency Program Director – PGY2 Psychiatric Pharmacy Residency
Clinical Pharmacy Specialist – Mental Health
Richard L. Roudebush VAMC, Indianapolis IN




Robin Hieber, PharmD, BCPP
Residency Program Director – PGY2 Psychiatric Pharmacy Residency
Clinical Pharmacy Specialist – Mental Health

Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, North Chicago, IL




Individualize Learning by Catering to Learning Styles

Individualizing the learning experience for a given resident can be vital to his or her growth. Fortunately, there are a number of tools which can be utilized to identify unique traits of each trainee. By becoming familiar with these tools, preceptors can identify best approaches to teaching early on and unlock the full potential of every resident.

Understanding one’s own strengths can allow for a more successful residency year. As the generation of learners continues to evolve, it becomes increasingly important to residency and other training programs to also consider standardized methods for exploring the trainees’ learning styles. This allows for creation of individualized learning experiences which are tailored to improve upon identified areas for improvement of the individual resident. There are several personality and learning style assessments that can be utilized in post-graduate training to help residents understand themselves better and develop their natural talents. Four examples are the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, Pharmacists’ Inventory of Learning Styles (PILS), Teaching Perspectives Inventory, and the Learning Styles Questionnaire.1-4 While these assessments are varied and aim to analyze different aspects of a trainee’s personality, they are best to be given at the beginning of the residency year. By performing the assessment at the beginning of the year, it allows for incorporation of the results into the resident’s customized training and development plan moving forward.

Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment

One of the more commonly used tools is the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, also known as CliftonStrengths.1 This assessment consists of an hour-long online questionnaire in which 177 paired statements are provided to the examinee as they are asked to choose which one term best describes them. The assessment is designed to measure the natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving to help discover the takers’ talents. The results of the questionnaire are displayed as a report in which examinees’ strengths, expressed in themes, are presented in a hierarchy of their strongest themes. Examples of themes that can be presented include analytical, context, learner, positivity, or responsibility. In total, there are 34 different themes which are presented in this assessment. Along with each theme, a brief description is given that provides examples of how these themes may be demonstrated in the examinee’s life. Use of this report, and other offered trainings, can help the examinee learn how to best leverage these talents (themes) for the greatest success.

Utilizing this type of assessment in a residency program can be beneficial not only to the program, but also the trainee. From a trainee’s perspective, it can be helpful to provide more self-awareness. For example, a resident may show strength in a theme that they do not initially agree with. Further investigation into the strength, its meaning, and reflection on the resident’s own personal characteristics and behavior, may allow for them to see this strength from a new perspective and leverage it a more meaningful way. From the program’s perspective it can help the residency program director (RPD) and preceptors understand the resident better. Particularly with regards to behaviors, predominant themes can help preceptors understand why a resident may be behaving a certain way or have responded in a certain situation. Understanding a resident’s themes can be a spring board for discussion that preceptors can have to move a resident through stuck points that may occur throughout the residency. For example, a resident with a predominant theme in responsibility may have difficulty declining additional workload which may lead to greater stress in the residency. Understanding this gives the RPD insight to perhaps not extend too many additional opportunities to the resident. Additionally, it allows the RPD or preceptor to work with the resident on how to select additional projects and how to decline opportunities. Using StrengthsFinders can also be a tool to help trainees develop these non-clinical skills throughout the year.

Pharmacists’ Inventory of Learning Styles (PILS)

The Pharmacists’ Inventory of Learning Styles (PILS) is a pharmacy profession-specific questionnaire to help identify learning styles to facilitate self-reflection and growth.2 The questionnaire consists of 17 items developed to capture dominant and secondary learning/practice preferences based upon the three pillars of learning: cognition, conceptualization, and motivation. The theoretical model developed by focus groups demonstrated two core dimensions most significant for pharmacists: unstructured versus structured and doing versus reflecting. There are four main styles that are identified depending in which quadrant a person fits: enactors, creators, directors, and producers. Enactors tend to be those who are goal-oriented, intuitive, and active. Creators are those who are people-oriented, creative, and open minded. Those considered directors are action-oriented, practical, and purposeful. Lastly, producers carry the traits of being rule-oriented, organized, and patient. The results of the PILS help describe primary and secondary learning preferences and identity particular strengths and gaps.

Asking residents to complete the PILS prior to entering his/her residency year helps not only the resident self-identify talents, it will also indicate skills that may be lacking. Indeed, studies demonstrate that learning styles may need to adapt as a person grows from student to resident; and perhaps the residency program can reshape learning type to improve success of the resident.5-6 The residency program director and preceptors can use the residents’ results to discuss and plan for the upcoming year, including individualized learning experiences, program goals, and compatibility of residents/co-residents and staff. Some facilities may choose to do workshops on the PILS so that preceptors can self-identify areas where they may not align with incoming residents. Having preceptors role-play scenarios with each other may help push individuals out of their comfort zones and facilitate the use of learning styles that differ from their own.

Choosing the Right Assessment

Choosing the right assessment to match the needs of the residency program is important. Learners’ styles often need to change over time to adapt for continued growth as students are generally taught differently (i.e. more didactic learning) than residents (i.e. clinic-based learning) and thus residency programs should prepare to help guide a resident in modifying his/her own style to succeed. The PILS and StrengthsFinder represent two different options that can be useful to aid in program modifications and creation of individualized development plans for specific residents as well as in order to provide continuous improvement of the residency program as a whole.


  1. Rath, Tom. Strengths Finder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press; 2007.
  2. Zubin A. Development and validation of the Pharmacists' Inventory of Learning Styles (PILS). Am J Pharm Educ. 2004; 68 (2) : 37.
  3. Wesner A, Jones R, Schultz K, Johnson M. Impact of the Use of a Standardized Guidance Tool on the Development of a Teaching Philosophy in a Pharmacy Residency Teaching and Learning Curriculum Program. Pharmacy. 2016;4(1):9. DOI: 10.3390/pharmacy4010009. PubMed PMID: 28970382; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5419357.
  4. Shukr I, Zainab R, Rana MH. Learning styles of postgraduate and undergraduate medical students. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak. 2013;23(1):25-30. DOI: 01.2013/JCPSP.2530. PubMed PMID: 23286619.
  5. Loewen PS, Jelescu-Bodos A, Yeung J, Lau T. The Effect of Transitioning from Residency to Pharmacy Practice on Learning Style. Am J Pharm Educ. 2014;78(8):147. DOI: 10.5688/ajpe788147. PubMed PMID: 25386012.
  6. Loewen PS and Jelescu-Bodos A. Learning styles and teaching perspectives of Canadian pharmacy practice residents and faculty preceptors. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013; 77(8): 163.
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