Over the last four years of medical school, I have realized that my knowledge comes from a mosaic of sources. These included, but were not limited to, a multitude of textbooks, lecturers from many domains of scientific research, clinicians and residents from all fields of medicine, multidisciplinary members of treatment teams such as nurses and therapists, and most importantly, my fellow peers.
Many sources describe peer education as, “People of a similar level of education, who are not professional teachers, helping each other and learning themselves by teaching”1. This practice has been used in medicine for centuries, as part of becoming a physician involves learning how to be an educator.
There has been a growing interest to formally study the use of peer assisted learning and as a result, many studies have been published in support of the practice that suggests students learn from teaching others and benefit from a less formal relationship when learning. In their systematic literature review, Yu et al noted that peer education brings an important “cognitive congruence” into the mix when learning from peers2. This means that peers best understand the knowledge base of those they are teaching and therefore can use language that they will understand to educate them at an appropriate level2. Given these conclusions, here are some tips for success in becoming an effective peer educator whenever the opportunity arises.
1) Assess their Knowledge
Before explaining any concept to a peer or younger medical student, it is important to assess where they stand on the given topic. For example, if a new medical student is just starting his or her first year, it is best to relate your message to things he or she has already experienced such as anatomy or basic sciences. Knowing how far along in the education process a learner is will guide your explanations so you do not talk above them, such as including complicated treatment algorithms as part of an explanation to a first year medical student. It is also important to recognize how the student learns best: whether he or she can follow a physiological or pathophysiological process in a step-wise manner, or if he or she is better at grouping together associated facts.
2) Always Reinforce the Basics
Along with assessing a learner’s knowledge, it is important to bring back the basic points of any topic. Often during medical education, learners are afraid to ask about something they do not understand because they are afraid of being ridiculed or feeling incompetent. An easy way to prevent this is to relate anything you are talking about back to basic concepts such as the relevant anatomy or basic system physiology. When in doubt, never assume a concept is so basic everyone understands it. You can also ask the learner why something is the way it is, thereby having the learner summarize the basic concepts of the topic to solidify their understanding.
3) Recommend Resources
Part of learning is teaching others where to look up supplemental information about a topic. This includes resources you may have used to study the topic or good textbooks that speak to the subject well. However, it is important to remember that resources should still be supplemental. If learners do not understand a topic well, or want to learn more about it they can refer to these resources, but you should be giving them enough information to where they understand the underlying concepts. Many times it is not beneficial to someone’s learning to just tell him or her to go read without also teaching the relevant information about the subject. When in doubt, think about what helped you learn the material in order to better help students help themselves.
4) Make it Relevant
This becomes an increasingly important tip, particularly for students in the upper years of medical school and residency. Everyone has, at some point, asked a question and has been given an answer that is long-winded and not useful for medical practice or for the patient. As an educator, it is important to register the question before spouting off all the information you possess about the topic. Overall, this tip is to remind you that education should be goal directed. In medicine it is best to direct education towards understanding how this information is useful in clinical practice to assist in the diagnosis and treatment plan of a patient. Remember that knowing the “why” and “how” of medical topics often leads to the other relevant information. By using anatomy, physiology, and the basic sciences to explain what causes something to happen, you can elucidate how a patient will present and what therapeutic approaches will be appropriate.
5) Patience, Patience, Patience
When teaching any subject it is easy to become impatient when learners are not grasping a concept. It is important to remember that at some point you were at a lower level of understanding and that over four years of medical school you learn an overwhelming amount of information. Getting impatient often leads to ridiculing and belittling lower level learners who in the future then become less likely to ask important questions. Instead, reassess their knowledge base and try explaining things in a different manner or taking some extra time to dwell further into a topic. Have the learner recap what he knows about the topic, and build on the concepts with which he is familiar in order to broaden his knowledge base. You can do this with a stepwise approach by asking leading questions that build off of each other and guiding the learner towards an answer.
It can be a very rewarding experience to teach your classmates and younger peers, both because you are helping someone else and also because you’ll learn more in the process. Practicing the above skills will also help you when it comes to teaching your future patients. Good luck as you implement the above tips!
1: Ramsden, Sophie, Abiola Abidogun, Emma Stringer, Sara Mahgoub, Artemis Kastrissianakis, and Paul Baker. “A Peer-led Teaching Initiative for Foundation Doctors.” The Clinical Teacher 12 (2015): 236-40.
2: Yu, Tzu-Chieh, Nichola C. Wilson, Primal P. Singh, Daniel P. Lemanu, Susan J. Hawken, and Andrew G. Hill. “Medical Students-as-teachers: A Systematic Review of Peer-assisted Teaching during Medical School.” Advances in Medical Education and Practice 2 (2011): 157-72.