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How to Teach a Successful Medical Class

By Peggy Mason, Ph.D.


Recently the second year-medical students (Class of 2014) at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine honored me with the L.D.H. Wood Pre-Clinical Teaching Award. This occasion prompted me to reflect on what made the Medical Neurobiology class that I taught in the fall of 2011 so successful. I believe that the following were key to the class’s success:

Give every lecture yourself. Reducing the number of instructors (particularly to one) is a sure-fire way to increase continuity, decrease redundancy, and generally improve the reception of any course. My single-authored textbook written specifically for medical students, Medical Neurobiology, was published by OUP in May 2011. I wanted to figure out if the book ‘worked,’ so I needed to teach the whole course.

Make certain students always know where they are and where they are going. My lectures went in the same order as the chapters of the book and virtually everything in my lectures was in the book. This allowed students to listen and try to understand in real time rather than focus on taking notes.

Address clinical issues at the first moment students could possibly understand a disease, disorder, or therapeutic approach. I opened the class with a discussion of locked-in syndrome and closed it with a comparison between locked-in syndrome and global amnesia, touching on several clinical issues in every class in between.

Focus on topics that any physician, regardless of specialty, needs to learn and remember in 25 years. Hammer home important points repeatedly. At least some of the students felt prepared enough for the midterm that they spent the preceding days studying for their other class’s midterm to be held several days later.

Explain everything simply. Anything, even very complex topics, can be explained simply. Peppering my lectures with metaphors, I wanted the material to make sense to the students, obviating the need for memorization beyond the bare minimum (viz. vocabulary).

Emphasize links between neurobiology and diseases that are not under the traditional purview of neurology. Building on lecture examples, students were asked to try their own hand at it in an extra credit assignment. The resulting essays discussing how neurobiology relates to internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology, rehabilitation medicine, and so on were gratifying.

Quiz the students early and often. The class was intense, covering all of neurobiology in six short weeks. As I planned for the course, I worried a great deal about the potential for students to fall behind. Every laboratory was followed immediately by a short practical quiz. Every week there was a quiz on the lecture material. Consequently students were tested 2-3 times each week. Whether because of these draconian measures or just because the students were outstanding, I don’t know, but no one in the class fell behind. And everyone passed with plenty of room to spare.

Get students to ask questions. Students asked many questions, every class, and these were great questions — not a single one was of the “will this be on the test?” variety. Questions of clarification allowed me to know when I was losing some portion of the students so that I could find another way to convey the material. Questions of interest revealed the personalities of the students, which in turn rendered the class more personal and actually, quite fun.

Make the class as good for you as it is for the students. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues in Flow (Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), optimal experience is not just about being successful; optimal experience also requires accomplishing something that is difficult. The students learned a ton — enough to render the neurology portion of their Clinical Pathophysiology and Therapeutics class simply a matter of conceptual review (plus a bit more vocabulary). The fact that the students succeeded paired with the challenging material is what made this class satisfying for the students. The class was just as satisfying for me because not only did I find out that my book ‘worked’ (which was gratifying) but I successfully communicated a great deal of material in a short time.

In the end, my experience tells me that teaching is about far more than a transfer of knowledge. Such a transfer can be accomplished by reading a book or even an internet site. However, when a teacher and students occupy the same physical space, something mysterious, magical and wonderful can happen: communication and learning! The students will learn readily if they feel like the teacher is a full partner. Students respond to energy with energy. And teachers are in turn energized by engaged students. In the fall of 2011, the students and I were mutually and actively engaged in a collective effort. They worked hard. I worked hard. It paid off. And we had fun. The outstanding students, the Pritzker class of 2014, were my invaluable partners and I treasure my experience with them.

Peggy Mason was educated at Harvard (BA ’83, PhD ’87) and did postdoctoral work at the University of California-San Francisco. Since 1992, she has been on the faculty of the University of Chicago and has taught neurobiology to medical students. She is now Professor of Neurobiology and the author of Medical Neurobiology.

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Multiracial medical students wearing lab coats studying in classroom. Photo by goldenKB, iStockphoto.

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One Response to “How to Teach a Successful Medical Class”
  1. [...] may not be a specific situation that too many people find themselves in, but Peggy Mason’s blog post at Oxford University Press on how to teach medical students is instructive for anyone who wants to effectively run a class. [...]

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