Med schools adjusting to millennial students

Educators look for ways to build on new scholars' perceived strengths in technology, optimism and team-building.

By — Posted Jan. 14, 2008

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The millennial generation is a big topic among those who teach medical school as they seek to shape an educational experience that meshes with this group's particular characteristics and learning styles.

"This is a new generation of students," said Michael Kavan, PhD, national vice chair of the Assn. of American Medical Colleges' group on student affairs and associate student affairs dean at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb. "How do we interact with them? How do we help guide them? There's a lot of talk about it but not a lot of guidance."

Born between 1982 and 2002, population theorists describe millennials as optimistic, self-confident, collaborative and team-oriented, technologically savvy and interested in improving their communities.

Some characteristics, such as their comfort with collaboration, have speeded the adoption of new teaching models. Other forces are driving change, such as technology, with students pressing for wireless Internet access and downloadable lectures.

Though medical educators do not have definitive answers on how best to structure medical education for this latest student population, they are actively investing in a variety of approaches.

Team players

Collaborative learning is one of them. Exposed to group projects in high school and college, medical students appear to be primed for learning strategies that incorporate teamwork, medical educators said. Used to having each individual's achievements celebrated, they are drawn to more cooperative atmospheres rather than the traditional, individually competitive environment.

Lauree Thomas, MD, associate student affairs and admissions dean at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said UTMB cultivates such an atmosphere in several ways. For example, when sophomores prepare for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, they are encouraged to get an average class score higher than that of the previous class. The catch is that juniors -- the ones they are trying to beat -- are coaching sophomores for the exam.

"The idea is that they can all take pride in success," Dr. Thomas said.

The medical school also promotes interdisciplinary teamwork by having medical students partner with physical therapy and nursing students for gross-anatomy lab.

Another teaching model medical schools are testing is team-based learning. Initially developed within business schools, the model made the jump to a few medical schools in the early 2000s and is gradually spreading. Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, is among the early adopters.

"Team-based learning is one of our key learning activities because it is so powerful," said Dean Parmelee, MD, Boonshoft's associate academic affairs dean. This year all of Boonshoft's core courses are using it.

Instead of hearing a lecture, students are expected to come prepared to participate. Students take a quiz on the session's material at the start of each class. Next, students join assigned groups of five to six students, and the quiz is repeated. This time, the group works together in selecting answers, and conflicting answers between groups are used as fodder for discussions. Lastly, the instructor gives the groups application questions that require them to synthesize and apply the required readings for the session to clinical situations.

Melissa Rice, a second-year student at Boonshoft, has experienced the technique firsthand. "Health care is a team sport, so it's important that we learn early on to work with other people, whether we would choose to work with them or not," Rice said.

Outside of the classroom, millennials' passion for helping others is spurring more service learning.

Dr. Kavan said Creighton's students developed a program four years ago called Creighton Medical School United in Relief Assistance, where they work on local and international outreach activities. The students also developed a clinic for Omaha's homeless that opened in 2004.

Bringing such service projects into the curriculum might be a next step for medical schools, educators said. Such support not only encourages faculty involvement but also helps sustain students' efforts.

This generation's familiarity with technology is another factor altering medical schools. Students engage well with audio and visual learning and expect Internet access on demand.

Experts say faculty may find that students are more familiar with this technology than the faculty is. So schools are adjusting how the curriculum is delivered by offering lecture podcasts, wireless access in the classroom so students can retrieve information from lectures, and videotapes of their interactions with standardized patients, posted on a university online system, so students can give each other with feedback.

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Physicians of the future

Demographers define the millennial generation as those born from 1982 to 2002, which means that the first batch is about to graduate medical school while the trailing edge is starting primary education. The first wave will start to join the ranks of practicing physicians in three years. Here are some defining characteristics.

Idealistic. Required to do community service in high school, this generation is familiar with giving back and strongly believes it can make a difference. Anecdotally, medical educators say student efforts to start or participate in outreach projects is exceptionally high.

Optimistic. They are used to being celebrated after being raised by attentive baby boomer parents who waited to have children until they were financially secure.

Team-oriented. They value being connected to others after a childhood heavy on organized activities and group projects.

Technologically savvy. Other generations have had to adapt to computers, wireless Internet access, text messages and podcasts. This one grew up with this technology.

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