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Medical School Strategies Learning


Learning is a quintessential process, upon which all education is based. There are numerous teaching strategies out there, designed both for individual and group learning. These strategies have their advantages and disadvantages. Medical schools put great emphasis on developing critical and clinical thinking through problem-solving and collaborative learning strategies. Although these strategies have their clear advantages and are very effective for small groups, they also have their own unique set of drawbacks that are not found in individual learning.

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Problem-based and collaborative learning

The collaborative learning format involves splitting the class into groups and giving them a problem to work with. Here are several common strategies:

Strategy Think-pair-share Three-step Interview Simple jigsaw
Methods and materials The students of a group are given a minute to think up an answer, after which they share their responses. Then, they share the responses with the rest of the 4-person group. The students form pairs and interview one another on a particular subject. Then, the pairs form a four-person group and discuss the subject in detail. The students are split into groups of four. Each member is assigned a role. Then, representatives for each role assemble and work on their part of the problem. After that, the members return to their initial teams and tell what they have learned.
Purpose Useful for developing quick thinking. Helpful when forming hypotheses and sharing opinions on something like a movie or a book. Promotes deep team cooperation and subject understanding.
Advantages Helps save time. Good for team-building exercises among the students. An effective learning tool, when all conditions are met.
Disadvantages Unusable when addressing questions in-depth. Unusable when answers need to be based on facts rather than opinions. Relies on teamwork. Personal grudges between participants ruin the method.
When to use? When questions do not require any in-depth research. Similar to the think-pair-share method. Use when conducting in-depth research on the subject.
Ideal audience Good for young children (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Universal method. Mature audience. It is not recommended for young students (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005).

Critical Thinking Strategies

Critical thinking is often developed in groups. Listening to other peoples’ opinions makes students more open-minded and less convinced in their rightfulness. Strategies:

Strategy Circular response method Devil’s advocate activity Scenario analysis
Methods and materials A student starts with a statement, which is followed by the other student agreeing or disagreeing with it and explaining why. Involves both supporting and rebuking one’s hypothesis, by providing arguments for both sides. The teacher invents a fictional story. The students make lists of assumptions from the main hero’s point of view. The lists are shared with the class.
Purpose Promotes acceptance of other peoples’ opinions. Teaching the student a difference between objective and biased opinions. Teaching students about assumptions.
Advantages The circular nature of the conversation allows facilitating a discussion. Very effective when the student is open to learning. Deep, insightful, and reflective experience. The entire class is engaged.
Disadvantages May generate conflict if the question is contested. Not universal – requires maturity to overcome one’s prejudices. Slow and time-consuming (Sereni-Massinger & Wood, 2015).
When to use? Use in small groups to engage all students in the conversation. Use when discussing controversial and contested topics. Use when you have plenty of time to dedicate to it.
Ideal audience Mature audience. Not recommended for younger students (Alvaro-Lefevre, 2016). Mature audience. Not recommended for younger students. Universal strategy.

Clinical Reasoning

Clinical reasoning is very important for medical students, as it gives insights into how the mind of a real doctor works. Clinical reasoning is split into subsections, such as Narrative reasoning, Interactive reasoning, Procedural reasoning, and others.

Strategy Writing narratives about clients met Writing journals and reflective papers Formal debate
Methods and materials The students write a reflective paper about the patients and reflect on how their illnesses affect them. The students write journals and self-reflective papers, concentrating on their practices. It suggests that after groups of students have finished working on a case study every group elects a spokesperson. They debate one another over possible treatment plans.
Purpose It teaches the students how to create and live their own stories and gives them insight into how illnesses and disabilities affect people. Makes the students aware of their feelings through reflection and self-evaluation. Promotes procedural reasoning.
Advantages Develops narrative reasoning. Does not require class resources, excellent assignment for homework. Develops interpersonal skills and critical thinking.
Disadvantages The students may not feel empathy, and instead write what they think is expected of them, thus making the exercise pointless. If the writer is not interested in self-discovery and writes what is expected of him, the point of the exercise becomes moot (Sibbald & de Bruin, 2012). The diagnosis becomes biased, as rhetorical and personal skills take part in the process.
When to use? Use at the beginning of clinical reasoning development classes. Best used in individual study programs. Useful during group case studies.
Ideal audience Should be implemented among first-year medical students. Recommended for first and second-year students. Available to all students, once they are educated enough to participate in group case studies (Graber, 2009).


The teaching strategies are numerous, but they are not perfect. A teacher is required to know when to use them. While group studying methods are becoming more commonplace, they have to be balanced out by individual studies as well, so that the students are capable of working with and without a group.


Alfaro-Lefevre, R. (2016). Critical Thinking, clinical reasoning, and clinical judgment. Sixth Edition. Florida, FL: Elsevier.

Barkley, E.F., Cross, K.P., & Major, C.H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, SF: Jossey-Bass.

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Graber, M. (2009). Educational strategies to reduce diagnostic error: Can you teach this stuff? Advances in Health Science Education, 14(1), 63–69.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Sereni-Massinger, C., & Wood, N. (2015). Teaching strategies for critical thinking. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 19(3), 100-106.

Sibbald, M., & de Bruin, A.B.H. (2012). Feasibility of self-reflection as a tool to balance clinical reasoning strategies. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 17(3), 419-429.

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