July 12, 2021, by mszrm4

Developing a mindset for medical education

Our blog this month is written by one of our recent Alumni, Kathryn Holden, who is currently working on turning her Masters dissertation into an academic journal article.

So here goes, straight to the point: do you think the preclinical medical training programme enables students to develop a healthy mindset for learning?

To really wring out every last drop of learning from an experience, you could argue that there has to be room for mistakes and growth through challenges faced outside of the comfort zone. With the early years of training being dominated by frequent, high stakes assessments, are we ensuring our future medics are able to develop a healthy mindset for learning, or are they just learning in order to pass the next exam?

Now for the context: I completed my dissertation as a scholar on the MMedSci programme last autumn. My interests and personal experiences of (i) mental ill health, and (ii) fears of failing at Uni led me to research how medical students cope with assessments. The qualitative approach taken to understanding more about the coping experience was so insightful, and much more useful than quantitative tick boxes that fail to offer any meaning behind why such strategies are employed.

What did the results tell me? Amongst the many findings (too many to discuss in a blog post), the study suggests that students possess an academic focus that drives their coping mechanisms in response to assessments. The students described how their dominant coping strategy was to focus on revising and studying to pass the next assessment. When they had done studying, they would study some more, and should they have any spare time, they would again revise and study. If possible, they would study in the library with their friends as well, because studying was pretty much their social life too. Ring any bells? Was this your experience? Did you also feel guilty if you didn’t take every opportunity to study?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that a level of focussed effort isn’t ideal for preparing for exams. Nor am I making light of the need to develop a sound base of core medical science knowledge. My fear is that the current design of pre-medical training programmes continues to promote a short-sighted approach to educational development; where success is viewed predominantly in terms of intelligence rather than learning.

Do sufficient opportunities for learning as a result of failure present themselves, in an environment where students don’t fear the consequences? I also feel that this approach contributes to the struggles students experience when faced with the abrupt transition to clinical training – a time where the development of attributes beyond knowledge acquisition is required. Is there opportunity to introduce a phased development of clinical based skills prior to the placement years?

So to finish: I’m not leaving you with a take home message. I’m genuinely asking this question to encourage discussion about a topic I feel passionate about. I believe the preclinical educational experience can be, and should be, improved.

As a medical educator, how would you ensure the design of a premedical curriculum that will allow students to simultaneously develop a mindset suitable for lifelong learning, whilst also acquiring the desired competencies of a future physician?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Mrs Kathryn Holden is an Alumni of the Nottingham medical education course. She gained her MMedSci (with distinction) in 2020. She has a BSc (Hons) in Biology and previously taught biochemistry practical to life science and medical students. In her current role, she is Academic Coach to students at Loughborough College. 


Join us on the Nottingham MedEd course:  https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/pgstudy/course/taught/medical-education-mmedsci


Further reading:

The book – Dwek, C., 2006. Mindset.

An article – Khalkhali, V., 2018. Medical Teaching and Learning: Growth Versus Fixed Mindset in Medical Education. Journal of Medical Education, 11(30), pp.1-3.


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