How to make the most of your medical school’s teaching style
Current medical students share their advice
The three main teaching styles used by UK medical schools are traditional, problem based learning, and integrated. In this article, Student BMJ readers offer advice on how to make the most of each style if you’re a first year medical student.
Courses offering a traditional approach are divided into preclinical and clinical years. The first half of the course is mainly lecture based and concentrates on biochemistry, basic science, and providing a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology. The second half of the course focuses on teaching clinical skills—such as how to examine patients, how to take a history, and communication skills—and consolidates the preclinical learning through experience on the wards.
Stay on top of your note taking
Zak Tait, third year medical student, University of Oxford, UK
In preclinical years, lectures come thick and fast and many topics are covered only once, although lecturers will recap big physiological concepts and drug pathways at the end of each year. This is a big jump from how A levels are taught, but is manageable if you keep detailed notes during or after each lecture. Keeping good notes will also provide you with a valuable reference, ready for when you see patients on the wards.
Look for opportunities to shadow healthcare professionals
Laura Nunez-Mulder, third year medical student, University of Cambridge, UK
As a preclinical student, it can be hard to stay motivated throughout months with a high volume of lectures and lack of patient contact. Ask your course leader if there are any opportunities to shadow healthcare professionals to get a taster of what it is like to be on the wards. Working as a healthcare assistant can give you exposure to patients and allow you to earn some money in the process. You could also volunteer to meet and greet patients at your local NHS Trust, or with a first aid charity such as St John Ambulance or the Red Cross.[3-5]
Problem based learning
Courses offering problem based learning use a self directed learning style, where you and your peers are given a clinical case and come up with learning objectives under the guidance of a tutor. You then carry out independent research while gaining experience on the wards, and discussing and refining your knowledge with the rest of your seminar group.
Don’t rely too much on your tutor
Tanvi Raghvani, fourth year medical student, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, UK
Your tutor is there to ask you questions and facilitate discussion rather than lecture you and spoonfeed you information. With problem based learning, you create your own learning objectives around common clinical presentations, which you are likely to be examined on in objective structured clinical examinations (OCSEs) or on the wards. The benefit of this approach is that you can focus on the most important information you will need to know when treating patients once you are a foundation doctor.
Don’t prepare too much for seminars
Niamh Beirne, third year medical student, University of Limerick, Republic of Ireland
It can be tempting to prepare a lot for group sessions by reading up on the latest research papers and memorising minute details about conditions. If you try to cover too much, however, it can be overwhelming. Instead, stick to answering the learning objectives you have agreed in your previous group session, and keep your notes to no more than one side of A4 paper. Chunking up topics in this way will also make it easier when revising for exams.
Most UK medical schools use an integrated style of teaching—where each system of the body is taught in turn through lectures and seminars, which are complemented by clinical placements.
Use your time on the wards efficiently
Emily Gardner-Bougaard, final year medical student, St George’s, University of London, UK
When on a clinical placement, do not feel compelled to stay on if you are no longer needed or learning anything. Check with your consultant and the rest of your team if it is okay to leave and read up on what you’ve observed to consolidate your learning. Be proactive in telling the team that you would like to shadow junior doctors. This can lead to opportunities to practise clerking patients, observing clinical signs, meeting patients, and understanding the clinical reasoning behind management decisions.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Natalie Farmer, fourth year medical student, Newcastle University, UK
As a medical student on the wards, you are not expected to know everything. You are there to learn, so take the opportunity to ask the consultant or registrar about a concept you may not have fully understood in a lecture. Finding the right time to ask questions can be difficult, but there are often opportunities between patients on ward rounds or after a ward round. Also, as a student, you have the luxury of having more time than doctors to talk to patients. This can be a great opportunity to build a rapport with them and learn about how their conditions affect their quality of life.
Box 1: The teaching styles of UK medical schools
Problem based learning—Exeter; Glasgow; Hull; York; Keele; Lancaster; Liverpool; Plymouth; Manchester; Cardiff (uses a form of problem based learning called case based learning)
Integrated/systems based—Aberdeen; Barts and the London; Birmingham; Brighton and Sussex; Bristol; Buckingham; Dundee; Durham; Edinburgh; Imperial College London; Kings College London; Leeds; Leicester; Newcastle; Norwich; Nottingham; Queen’s University Belfast; Sheffield; Southampton; St Andrews; St George’s, London; Swansea; University College London; Warwick
Lancaster University, UK
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- Pradhan R, Bourdon-Pierre R, Green M, et al. Medical school teaching styles explained. Student BMJ 2017;25:i1636.
- Tam J. The life of a healthcare assistant. Student BMJ 2014;22:g6143.
- Ambulance SJ. Volunteer with St John Ambulance. 2017. www.sja.org.uk/sja/volunteer.aspx.
- British Red Cross. Volunteer. 2017. www.redcross.org.uk/Get-involved/Volunteer.
- Get Involved NHS. 2017. www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/volunteers-week/get-involved/.
- Wood DF. Problem based learning. BMJ 2003;326:328-30.