Choose a Medical School Where You Will Become a Master Adaptive Learner

Choose a Medical School Where You Will Become a Master Adaptive Learner

September 3, 2021

No matter which medical school you choose to go to, you want to make sure you graduate with four very specific skills/traits:

  1. Excellent teamwork skills
  2. Excellent clinical skills
  3. The ability to apply technology to your own learning and patient care
  4. Integrity, honesty, and compassion

Teamwork: Healthcare is delivered in teams. Many students arrive at medical school and say, “I’ve worked in teams, I’m pretty good at that,” but running a healthcare team is not the same as running any other team. It is a skillset you must practice over and over. And the way you practice this is by being put in teams in a health learning environment. So, when you’re researching medical schools, you need to look at the curriculum and find out if there are opportunities for you to work in small groups repeatedly.

Clinical Skills: You also want excellent clinical skills, and the best way to get excellent clinical skills is to have exposure to patients – real, standardized, or simulated. When you’re looking at different schools’ curricula, make sure you have exposure to patients early and often. When you talk to practicing physicians about what they remember from medical school, it’s not the lectures, it’s the patients and the cases they dealt with. In addition to clinical skills, you want to look for case-based learning because as a practicing physician you, too, will remember your patients more so than any of your lectures.

Technology: You want to be able to apply technology to your learning. Technology is changing so rapidly that you want to make sure you’re learning on cutting-edge technology to be well prepared for residency and beyond.

Moral Principles: This is the one that’s most important – you need to be honest, ethical, and compassionate. Most students come to medical school with these traits, but you want to look for a curriculum that will help you solidify and grow them. You need to be in a place where you’re cared for so you can care for others. Make sure whatever medical school you choose has a strong support system.

Becoming a Master Adaptive Learner

The medical school you choose also needs to make you a master adaptive learner. Let’s talk about what that is – it is a person who is:

  • Open to self-reflection
  • A critical thinker
  • Willing to admit “not knowing”
  • Able to develop solutions to novel problems
  • Someone who demonstrates a spirit of inquiry and curiosity

The reason these skills are so important is because they help you develop, or see, solutions to novel problems. This cycle starts with planning.

In the planning stage, you identify a gap or problem you don’t know the answer to. For example, you may not know how to treat a patient so you begin by learning as much information as you can about them before trying out what you’ve learned (eg, giving a test or prescribing medication) and then assessing what worked well and what didn’t before adjusting and going through the cycle again. It’s an integrative cycle you repeat.

The reason we need to do this in medicine is because we know there is a huge chasm between what we know now and what we will know in the future. We know that:

  • The context of healthcare delivery is changing rapidly
  • The volume of medical information doubles every five years
  • Many physicians are not well prepared for future learning

What this cycle does is help you become a continuous, lifelong learner with the skills to bridge that gap.

Building a Tapestry: Learning is like planting a hook in your brain. When you learn something, you plant hooks and then hang information on those hooks until tendrils form, and soon there will be connecting or “ah ha” moments where you see how the tendrils go together. But this is not the best way to learn medicine because when the knowledge changes, you lose the tendrils and all the connections that are hung below.

Instead, what you want to do is plant hooks and hang things on them that connect all the way down. In other words, rather than having these long tendrils of occasionally interconnected information, you build a tapestry from the very beginning so that when the knowledge changes you understand conceptually what’s going on and can adjust your thinking and approach.

The literature is clear about why physicians need to do this, and it has to do with routine versus adaptive expertise. When it comes to clinical care, most students start out with low expertise; they’re not very efficient nor are they very innovative because they are learning. From here, many physicians move to becoming highly efficient but not very innovative – meaning they are good at routine clinical care. The ideal is to become highly innovative and highly efficient so that you can solve those novel problems we know are coming in the future.

In sum, our job as medical school leaders is to provide you with opportunities that will allow your skills and leadership to develop so you can become master adaptive learners who are positioned to succeed as MDs in your specialty of choice. My advice is to make sure your medical school of choice is a place where you can become a physician capable of thriving both now, and in the future.