Friday, January 27, 2012

What I learned from the cerebellum yesterday about timeliness

*Note - photo is archived, and not from the lecture mentioned
My fellow course director yesterday gave what was actually a very nice lecture on the cerebellum to our second-year medical school neuroscience class.  It was clear, and it was logical.  But it caused a bit of trouble.  The trouble was that it included a lot of detail.  He had an hour and a half, and he covered 65 slides which for one of my lectures is usually more than I attempt, but I didn't think he was rushed as he went through, so I don't have a problem with that.  he was logical in his presentation and it was all pretty clear, so that wasn't a problem.  It was also organized relatively well.  No, the trouble came from the age-old medical student complaint that the test is today.  And he changed his slides the night before.  And did I mention that the test is today?  And they already had to review brainstem anatomy with cranial nerves and the motor system as well for this test earlier in the week.  And did I mention that the test is today.

I accept part of this is on me as a first-time course director.  There were somethings in the schedule which we purposefully changed in terms of timing to try to improve the flow of the course.  Of course, we have had the typical issues of lecturer availability changing up the timing of a session here or there.  But, some weeks we just kept as it was, as they worked last year.  This is one of those weeks.  I didn't even really revert my mind back to med student mode to realize that putting something as complex as the cerebellar anatomy the day before the test was a bad idea.  It was a bad idea, as basic educational literature supports the idea that concepts are retained more if they are repeated and if they are applied.  We really didn't have time to do either with the cerebellum.  So, next year we will rectify that problem.  This year, the schedule has been set for several months, and there's not much room now to swap things around.

My reason for this post isn't about whether this was an ill-fated lecture or not, it is more about the student reaction to the lecture.  I was in the back of the room as the lecture ended, and the reaction generally from those that sat in the entire auditorium was best described as anger and frustration.  Frustration I can understand.  I can understand that there was a lot of information presented and that this may have been perceived as not being 'fair'.  However, there was also an underpinning of anger that, although I understand where it comes from, I find a little troubling.  I've seen on Twitter some posts by med students after a bad lecture where the venting becomes more of a personal attack on the lecturer themselves.  That is where I think there is a bit of a problem.  This also comes out in the narrative evaluations we receive from students for courses.  There are plenty of comments which are truly helpful, and point out errors which can be corrected.  Then, there are those that don't give much rationale for why the lecture was not good and how to improve it for the future, but they are just downright mean.  I totally realize the the first and second year of medical school is a time of high pressure and stress.  I also understand that processing all that information in the time required is a monumental task.  I understand how a poorly organized talk can make things worse.  I understand that medical students are paying a lot of money for this.  But I also understand that as good as any educational program is, there are going to be times where you try something and it doesn't come off as planned.  I also know for sure that my co-course director's intent was to provide more details to clarify the major points he was making.  His intent was not to harm, but to help.  I think the majority of lectures I went to in medical school, the lecturer honestly wanted to help the students learn about things they are passionate about.  True it is not always presented with great oratory skills or organization, but I think the number of lecturers who truly despise students and purposefully are trying to mess them up is very small.  So, all I'm saying is that part of professionalism we are trying to teach in the medical school curriculum should include how to give reasonable feedback to educators without being judgmental.  Yes, the lecture was ill-timed, and changing slides on dense lecture the day before the test was ill-timed, and that feedback should be given.  It's not OK in frustration to launch an all-out personal assault.  Because, at the end of the day, most medical students still find a way to wade through those messes and learn what needs to be learned.  It's not fun, but as I move forward in the 'life-long learning' cohort, most of the stuff I'm presented with is a huge disorganized pile of information some of which is contradictory, and I need to work it out myself as I have a regular test I take regularly in the exam room of my clinic.  And also, the theory is that the course director's job is partly to take that reasoned feedback and create changes for next year to improve.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Teaching second year students with tag teams

In my view from the back of the neuroscience course, I saw some good stuff today.  We had a four-hour block of time to introduce muscle, neuro-muscular junction, peripheral nerve, and motor neuron physiology and pathophysiology.  For each of these lectures, I invited a pathologist and a neurologist to share the lecture time.  They had not done this before, so there were a few moments where it wasn't clear who was going to present what.  Overall, the pathologists presented the pathological changes in the structure, then the clinicians gave a presentation of what that looks like in patients affected by these diseases.  What I noticed that I thought was super cool, was that in the middle of each talk, the clinician or the pathologist would look over at the other person with a look like, "am I explaining this right?"  The other presenter, then usually stepped in, and gave a nice presentation of the area that was fuzzy for the first lecturer.

I like this model for several reasons.  First, it helps avoid some of the inevitable statements like, "I have no idea what you've been exposed to before about this, but..." or "Have you all seen this before or not?"  Second, it allows points which need clarification to be clarified right at that moment.  Third, I think it helps emphasize to the students that medicine truly is becoming too complex for one person to feel like they can master every thing.  Yes, you can still aspire to be a well-rounded physician, but any field of study moves to fast for you to practically stay up on everything.  Thus, you need to learn to rely on the knowledge and experience of your colleagues.  I think it also practically has the advantage of having clinicians and more basic science facutly mingle a little.

Wondering if others have more experience with a similar model in the basic science curriculum of your medical school?  Please share your thoughts and ideas here.