The learner journey: Expert perspectives on teaching

By Teaching in Medicine Club – Student Executives

Whether it’s instructing students or communicating with patients, teaching is a critical part of a medical practice. The Teaching in Medicine Club, a student-run group with a focus on developing passionate medical educators through career exploration and skill building, spoke to four physician educators at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry about their perspectives regarding effective teaching.

How did you get involved in teaching?

Dr. Shannon Venance: I completed a PhD in anatomy and cell biology before going into medicine. I taught throughout my PhD, and I loved teaching. In medical school, I taught my classmates in the anatomy lab. With my background in teaching, Western hired me in a clinician-teacher role.

Dr. Selay Lam: I have really always loved teaching; just sharing my knowledge and explaining things both to patients and trainees. My path was, however, unconventional. I had this notion that being a teacher meant doing a Masters or PhD in education. After residency, I was ready to become a community hematologist as my life at that point in time was not compatible with extra training. I had a mentor who convinced me that more formal training was not necessary and that if you have a passion for teaching, you can be a good teacher without an extra graduate degree. I am able to find time for teaching within my daily and personal life because I really enjoy it. It is not a chore.

Dr. Michele Weir: Joining a community of medical educators really helped me learn more about education theory and practical applications. I started to team teach and do collaborative teaching early in my career. Then I moved into my educational leadership roles. In addition to course and committee chair positions, I've been heavily involved in accreditation for undergraduate medical education (UME) quality improvement, and the curricular renewal. This really allowed me to broaden my expertise and experience.

Dr. Gary Tithecott: When I went through my training, after graduation there was a year of Internship. It happened after medical school but before residency. In my paediatrics rotation I was able to function like a junior resident, which allowed me to teach medical students. It was there that I discovered I very much liked teaching. I enjoyed supporting students, and at the same time challenging myself by reinforcing my knowledge.

What makes someone a good educator?

SV: Teaching isn't at all about the teacher! The focus is on what students need to facilitate their learning. This really frames how I look at things. Another key quality of a good educator is being able to tailor your message. In clinical teaching there are often different levels of expertise in your audience, from medical students to residents to fellows. The folks to emulate are those that can skillfully relate the message to all levels of training and keep everyone engaged.

SL: Passionate - someone who really enjoys what they're doing. Adaptive - It really does require you to not be set in your own ways as a teacher, incorporating feedback from learners. Seeing things from the learner perspective and making sure the teaching is tailored and individualized to the trainees that you're teaching. Dedicated – Allocating the time and seeking mentorship when you don’t know something.

MW: Being passionate about what you're doing is really important. It goes back to a classic quote from author Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Another element is courage and being unafraid to fail. It takes courage to implement something innovative and interesting or fun. Finally, we always need compassion, empathy, caring, and kindness for students. In medicine, there is a lot of shame-based learning. We're starting to move out of that finally, but without those human qualities, it can be difficult for learners.

GT: I would say being a good listener. Listening isn't always with your ears, it's with your eyes, too. If you don't, then you can't judge your audience and adjust. The second is being adaptive. Being open, and willing to say I could be wrong.

Where do you see medical education going in the future?

SV: I’d like to move away from discipline-specific blocks or modules and towards representing how people actually present to clinicians. I believe that a dedicated cohort of educators could effectively serve as a link across the four years of a more transdisciplinary integrated curriculum. Meanwhile specialists and subspecialists would still be intimately involved by providing overviews where they are relevant.

SL: We are always reviewing sessions and making small tweaks. But the biggest changes in the future I see are in integration and simulation. Students can see a patient as a whole, instead of systems. The way I envision simulation is that, with every block you would have one simulated clinic, going through several histories, physicals, investigations etc. All without compromising patient care, and all being assessed with feedback to really integrate and consolidate knowledge.

MW: One thing that I very much wrestled with in the past is that not all learners are created the same, and yet we expect them to go through the same curriculum. I think that we are moving to a more learner-centric experience, not one-size-fits-all learning. Virtual learning can help accelerate this. We have also been incorporating personality and preference data into how we decide to format small group learning. If we have mostly ambiverts and introverts in the class, then how we structure group work is very important so that learners are not overwhelmed.

GT: When I started here, the curriculum was very dependent. Meaning, as a student, you sit back and are given all this information. The learning that is meaningful that I have understood from literature and from practical experience, is learning material that you interact with. To me, the ability to say that you're meaningfully learning by sitting in a lecture hall is out of date.

Could you give one piece of advice to medical students interested in teaching?

SV: No matter what you do or who you are, you want to consider who is your target audience and focus on the one or two essential takeaways for your audience. We tend to get carried away in giving people everything we think they need to know, especially with an interested audience! If we cover the key objectives in an engaging way, and the audience walks away with those takeaways, there is always an opportunity to dive deeper. This can be a powerful stimulus for learning!

SL: My absolute, one message is this: If you don't love it, you're not going to want to do it. So, get involved in teaching because you want to, do not do it because you think it will help you get a job. If you love it, you will make the time, put in the effort and you will always want to be better. This holds true for any career decision really.

MW: I think the first thing is find a mentor. That's something that I did not have, and I was going to actually quit teaching. It really wasn't until I became a course lead that I started to connect with others. That was really important in my growth. Related to that: Join a community, or as a faculty member find a group of educators. Nationally or internationally, there's a variety of education conferences where you can connect with other educators.

GT: My advice is to keep your options open! I try to give this advice to everybody more than once. If someone gives you an opportunity to learn from them, or to try something different, go for it. It may not end up being for you, but don't go in with a closed mind. I mean this generally, but also specifically to education opportunities. Maybe it is helping someone write a module or taking part in a curriculum audit. Be open, and you can incorporate small educational activities into your career if you enjoy them.

For more on teaching topics, join the Teaching in Medicine Club or visit the website for periodic updates. If you have any further questions, reach out via email.

Teaching in Medicine Club – Student Executives contributing to this piece (Schulich medical students) Joshua Jesin, Class of 2024; Dan Wilsdon, Class of 2025; Asaanth Sivajohan, Class of 2024; Dhuvaraha Srikrishnaraj, Class of 2025; Majid Gasim, Class of 2024; Laurel McGillis, Class of 2025; Nikita Ollen-Bittle, Class of 2024; and, Brianna Ananthan, Class of 2025.