Learning and Grades

An academic institution is regarded as a place where an individual obtains knowledge to be an informed and contributing member of the society. Medical school is one of these places where students gain medical knowledge and skills necessary to be a competent clinician. Whether a person has been successful in attaining a set standard of proficiency is often measured by a standardized examination. The more time I spend in educational institutions, the more I come to realize the inherent flaw in such an objective measurement of performance.

One of the things that has surprised (and reassured) me the most about medical school is the undergraduate medical curriculum itself, which follows a pass/fail system and caters to different learning styles. It was not until I started medical school and have been though the curriculum that I could truly reflect on my educational experiences in the past. As a graduate from McMaster’s Health Sciences program, which has revolutionized problem-based learning, many of my ideas are based on my experiences in that program.

A person’s happiness is not defined by how many assets they possess or by any other objective measurements, so when measuring ‘learning,’ why do we place such a great emphasis on grades and getting the maximum objective score. Granted it is the easiest measurable unit we have in deciding a person’s progress when compared to a set standard; increasingly, these marking schemes are used to classify students rather than to evaluate an individual’s true understanding of the material. Education should be revamped so that the student plays more of an active role in his or her learning, and one who has an actual interest in the subject.

My experiences in high school and university have revealed that there is less emphasis on learning and more on getting that A+. Mark skimming is especially prevalent in various undergraduate programs, where classes are taken not based on interest but by whether it will result in a high mark. All of us are in medical school due to various reasons, but one of them is because we are truly interested in this subject matter. I feel that, at this stage of my training, rather than marks guiding my performance, the medical program itself is a source of motivation for me. This is further confirmed by the proof that my marks tend to be higher in blocks that I am particularly interested in as compared to other blocks.

Another benefit of the medical school curriculum is being graded on a pass/fail system. I think this is the best evaluation tool we have since it reduces the pressure and competition associated with achieving a high grade, and thus consequently maximizes individualized learning. Although exams are still marked objectively, the emphasis has been shifted from striving for the best mark in the class to striving for the best mark I deserve. This creates a more internal and individualized competition, where it is up to the individuals to challenge themselves and attempt for a better score. I find that this leads me to better appreciate and understand the material, as my focus is not to be the best in the class but the best that I can be.

In addition, its imperative to understand that real world knowledge is not measured by how well we perform on exams. A person who did or did not do well on an exam is not a true measure of their understanding of the material, but merely a reflection on their ability to do well on that particular exam and/or their ability to retain short-term knowledge. This may or may not correlate with how much knowledge they have actually attained from the course. An individual’s performance on an exam could be affected by a variety of factors, including perceived meaning of the question, psychosocial situations or just pure luck.

Moreover, the medical curriculum is tailored to accommodate individualized styles of learning. All of us are different; we all have different likes and dislikes. This does not mean that one person’s like is superior to another’s. Similarly all of us have different styles of learning and obtaining information, and we cannot say that one style is better than another, as they are all tailored to an individual’s learning needs. Some people might prefer to attain all the information though lectures, others may favour a more problem-based approach. One of the great things about the Schulich medical curriculum is the fact that it tries to accommodate different learning styles by having the educational materials available though lectures, online notes, small group learning, independent learning, labs and podcasts.

In conclusion, it is comforting to know that the medical education is designed in such a way that facilitates active learning, by implementing a pass/fail system and accommodating different learning styles. Medical education is a time where we gather the foundations we need to be a better clinician and skills we need to be a lifelong learner.