Ross University Blog

VIEWPOINT: 10 Ways to Provide an Engaging Medical School Learning Environment

July 13, 2015

This blog entry was written by Vijay Rajput, MD, FACP, SFHM, Professor and Chair of Medicine at Ross University School of Medicine. Dr. Rajput is also the Medical Director for the Office of Student and Professional Development at RUSM.

What do learners want from their teachers? I think that the answer to that question is the same for all students, from pre-school to medical school. My experience as a professor is with medical students, so I will discuss this topic from their perspectives.

RUSM students learning

After all these years as a faculty member and chair, I can say that it is the students who have trained me in what they really need. If we want our students to succeed, we have to turn our attention to what they want, and we need to ensure that we provide a learning environment that includes the following 10 basic requirements.

 

Engage me.

Excite me.

Explain your role and style.

Don’t make me invisible.

Give me autonomy.

Praise me appropriately.

Don’t scare me.

Help me when I’m struggling.

Provide timely feedback.

Celebrate new learning.

 

Diving In: Creating an Effective Medical School Environment

Engage me: Medical students work with residents and attendings in a clinical setting to manage patient care. Faculty must make them feel that they are part of the team, and not just bystanders. One way to accomplish this is to make meaningful use of their time. They have time to talk to patients, and then come back to give me, the physician, the information that will help me make a brilliant diagnosis.

RUSM students discussing

Excite me. We have to create the environment for a student to get excited, by being given a role, and simple rules to follow.  For example, there was a case in which a patient, who did not speak English, was admitted with a fever of unknown origin. The resident did many tests. The medical student, who had time to talk to the patient, did a good history, and then also took off the patient’s socks as part of the physical examination. That’s when he discovered that the patient had a dry, gangrenous toe, which was the source of the fever! Since then, I always take off a patient’s socks.

Explain your role:  The many residents and faculty with whom a student may work on clinical rotations all have their own work styles, ways of getting work done and ideas about what they expect from students. It is difficult for students to know who we are, what responsibilities we have, and what our roles are in their medical education. We should take a few moments to clarify all this to students on the first day of a new rotation.  

Don’t make me invisible: Faculty members should know a little something about each student, outside of the medical sphere. Does the student have a skill, interest or hobby? I always ask new students to tell me where they were born and raised, where they went to high school and college, what they majored in, and what they did before coming to RUSM. I’ve had so many students and I may not remember their names, but I remember their life stories. This exchange creates a little bond, and makes it easier for the student to come to me with any questions or problems. I try to create a nurturing, friendly environment. Students know that they will have to work hard, but they will learn a lot. I also maintain an open-door policy, and I want students to feel comfortable knocking on my door without having to make an appointment. They are not invisible to me. I see them as individuals with unique needs.

RUSM students show autonomy

Give me autonomy: Don’t tell students how to learn. You can guide them, but don’t force them by telling them how to do everything. Allow them to do some experimenting in their learning.

Praise me appropriately: You don’t have to give out gold medals, but when a student does something right, one word of praise can go a long way. A simple, “That was nice” or “That was good” is very meaningful.

Don’t scare me: I’m a firm believer in having an environment that is conducive to learning. It’s ok to create a little performance anxiety and to put students a little on the spot. But the technique of scaring them doesn’t work. Neither does intimidating them with your knowledge or power. Fear and anxiety do not create a good atmosphere for learning.

Help me when I’m struggling: It’s reasonable that students who are struggling will need more guidance, and more discipline. Help them set up short term goals, like for the next exam, as well as long term goals, about their careers. Sometimes they may have trouble seeing the forest for the trees, so you can help them zoom in and zoom out, so they see both trees and forest.

Provide timely feedback: I used to give my students formative feedback at the end of every week. I called it Feedback Friday. Faculty members need to find out what students have learned and what they still need to learn, so there isn’t a gap between what they’ve been taught and what they know. It’s not enough to say, in general, “You need to improve your communication with the patient.” We should give students specific guidance, like, “Pay attention to body language.”

Celebrate new learning: Many times in long demanding work hours in professional school and clinical environments we forget to have fun while learning. In medicine we are often surrounded by sickness, suffering and pain. The notion of fun may seem inappropriate. What I am referring to, however, is the enjoyment that comes from learning something new, and from doing something well. Students should be able to celebrate these accomplishments. Of course we must respect our patients’ privacy, and maintain the proper professional demeanor around patients. What I have often done is take my students to the cafeteria for ice cream to celebrate their successes, to give them a high-five and tell them they did a good job.

Final Thoughts: The Med School Student's Perspective and Why It Matters

As an educator, thinking about learning from the student’s perspective has helped me a lot. Over the years I have observed my mentors, many of whom were role models in this respect.

Most of all, I am indebted to my students, from whom I continue to learn how to become a better teacher.

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