Since my first semester as a lecturer, I have been working with medical students. Rather rapidly, my work shifted towards guiding them to conduct research, and this for several reasons.
- That’s what I thought I could teach them the most accurately
- Since they have to write a research thesis I thought it would be valuable
- I am convinced that studying medicine without understanding the research process is a flawed approach
Guiding students to the conduct of research when they have little or no research background is a challenge. I say guiding because I refuse to be teaching them from a theoretical standpoint the steps of research. Learning to conduct research, I feel, is alike learning a craft: you learn by doing.
That is how I became familiar with the pedagogical concept of project-based learning.
I supervised each of my five classes of ten students (1 hour per week over a semester) the task to conduct a systematic review (SLR). What a SLR? I am quite convinced that knowing how to conduct a SLR should be the starting point of research conduct (in health but not only). The other reason is that you can conduct a SLR with a computer and internet, which is not the case of many research methods.
I let them choose their topic, explained to them how to build their study protocol and later execute it. It has been over six months since the end of the semester and I must come to realise that, while the experience what overwhelmingly successful – I know so because they truly understand what a SLR entails and what purpose it serves – none of the SLRs have reached the stage of findings report, let alone publications.
There were several flaws in my approach:
- Their lack of experience in group work is such that a 10 people collaboration turned out to be a real challenge
- The end of the semester meant that they no longer had a grade incentive to continue. While some remained motivated, their priorities shifted
My goal is to develop a strategy to enable research-naive student to start with a first project and be able to reach publication. I understand this is ambitious, but this type of success I believe puts a student on a path to success in an incomparable manner. I remember reading a paper regarding publication behaviours of students and researchers, which concluded that once the hurdle of the first publication has passed, the likelihood of publishing a second and third time were incredibly higher than for a person without any publication. If only I could break that first hurdle with them.
I adapted my approach.
Students of medicine must submit a proyecto de titulacion (PdT) as part of the graduation requirements. Most of them unfortunately do scientifically insignificant work because of the lack of supervision. I chose to open applications to specific research questions for students. To make sure projects would not be jeopardised by students quitting – which may always happen, interdependently of your wishes -, I decide to group students together. While the PdT is an independent report, they can nevertheless work in groups up until the development of results. I offered groups of students to conduct a research project containing at least as many primary and secondary objectives as there were students. To make sure they understood the commitment, I imposed they write a motivation letter while applying. So far, it has worked well.
But I still have a problem. They rapidly get lost. They lose track of what to do next and team work is not quite as efficiently used as it should. My colleague Caley and I came to the conclusion that:
- Writing in English on a blank paper is hard
- Asking them to start with the development of a study protocol can be daunting
I am going to try the use of a new-ish tool, which is mind mapping. Among their first goal, there will be the task to build a mind map based on a template designed for them. This mind map will serve -adequately so – as a road map: they will update and refer to it all along the project. This approach, untested at the moment, may help reduce the blank page syndrome and help the teamwork organisation. At least I hope it will. I’ll try to report on this as soon as I get some form of results.