Drinking from a Fire Hydrant: Musings on Active Learning in Medical School

Almost everyone has seen a doctor at some point in their lives. Yet, for most, what actually goes on in medical school remains a mystery. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you have experienced the delightful experience that is medical school. Sleeping in late, eating well, and relaxing with friends and family on the weekend are just a few of the joys that we medical students get to experience. Just kidding. Medical school, as most of us know, is beyond challenging. At my school, faculty members fondly liken the medical school experience to drinking from a fire hydrant. As medical students, our pre-clinical days are comprised of hours and hours of lectures and power points. Then, when class is all over, we get to top off the day with several additional hours of studying. It’s challenging, it’s overwhelming, and at times, it seems downright impossible.

Part of what makes medical school such a unique challenge is the fact that medicine is a tactile discipline and yet, pre-clinical education is traditionally taught in a classroom setting. In response to this dichotomy, the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine recently made headlines by announcing that it would become the first public American medical school to completely eliminate lectures from its curriculum, joining private Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/07/29/medical-school-without-the-sage-on-a-stage/?utm_term=.6847516c2b31.) This change, which is expected to be fully implemented by the year 2019, comes in response to concern that the traditional lecture format does not promote knowledge retention and instead relies on “passive” learning where the learner is not actively engaged in their education. To draw an analogy, passive learning is like being fed while active learning requires learners to pick up the fork to feed themselves.

Although the University of Vermont and Case Western Reserve University seem to be the only two institutions whose medical schools have committed to becoming completely lecture-free, it’s interesting to realize that other schools have moved towards a more active learning format as well. In my school, the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (COMP) , students pick their own small groups. These small student-led groups meet several times a month and work together to complete assignments and discuss scenarios that are based upon real clinical scenarios. Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is one of several schools that employs a problem based learning curriculum, and in 2015, Harvard Medical School also restructured their curriculum to become more problem-based. Ultimately, medical school curriculums exist on a spectrum from passive to active curriculum styles and the continuum seems to be shifting to favor active learning styles at many medical institutions.

Moving away from a traditional lecture setting certainly presents its own unique challenges that affect learning. The non-lecture curriculum requires more self-reliance on the part of the students, who must teach themselves new material. The small groups used at COMP, for example, are completely student-led. A faculty member may pop in for a few minutes to make sure that the group is running smoothly, but often these faculty members are not experts in the subject matter at hand and are present to deal more with administrative issues than to teach content.  It also means that students are required to participate in groups, whereas many schools may have optional attendance for lectures. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the active learning curriculum, however, is the necessity for different personalities to work together to achieve a common goal. The traditional classroom setting involves one teacher who employs a specific style to reach multiple students. In the active learning curriculum, small groups are often used, in which each member has a different personality. Students in these groups must work together, sometimes despite personality differences, to master the curriculum and achieve common goals. Although the group setting closely resembles the team-based approach taken in most healthcare settings, it can undoubtedly be frustrating, especially for someone like myself who tends to be more introverted and likes to study on his/her own. In my personal experience, the members of my small group were incredibly supportive and had a variety of strengths, yet there were many days when I couldn’t wait to return to the comfort of my own room to be able to really learn the material myself. Sometimes trying to learn unfamiliar concepts with others was a distraction, and despite the best of intentions, small group was like the blind leading the blind when we were all confused on certain concepts. There were some times that the small group felt comforting, like someone holding my hand, and other times when it felt too overwhelming, like someone pressing my face up against that proverbial fire hydrant. Ultimately, I felt like the combination of both lectures and small groups was actually more dynamic than relying solely on one or the other. While the University of Vermont and Case Western Reserve University have both made the bold move to abstain from lectures altogether, they join the company of many medical schools, both allopathic and osteopathic, that have recognized the importance of active learning for the medical school curriculum. Let me know what alternatives your medical school offers to traditional lecture-style learning!

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