Research conducted by an expert in pedagogic factors in the medical curriculum at UKZN, Professor Ted Sommerville, has revealed that students with previous tertiary education experience tend to do better than others in the MBChB programme.

During a study investigating several demographic influences on MBChB student achievement, Sommerville found that when examined individually, age, sex and facilitator background had no significant impact on the success of students being studied.

Students’ first language and the financing of their studies did seem to influence their achievements. However, only high school quintile (socio-economic status of the community), previous tertiary experience, assessment marks and a student’s matric points were significant independent determinants of how well students progressed through their medical degree.

Sommerville presented the study at the College of Health Sciences’ Annual Research Symposium, saying the findings could have implications for student admissions for curriculum structuring, planning therapeutic interventions and for the pre-medical education sphere.

Sommerville said various studies at school and university level had documented factors that could influence students’ assessment marks – ‘the ultimate measure of academic success or failure’.

The study was inspired by his passion to teach a new generation of critical thinkers who would join the medical fraternity and meet the special healthcare needs of the country. He was concerned that students of today were a lot more relaxed than older generations about the comprehensive and packed information passed on to them by lecturers.

‘If the sort of information we teach students is held onto for a while and then forgotten then that is a pity. I try to make them think. That’s my conviction.’

Sommerville, who followed 202 first-year students from 2007 through to graduation in 2011, argues that medical education is important for shaping the future of the country’s health care ‘but if we are not producing doctors who can think for themselves then they will not be able to keep abreast of new knowledge’.

Sommerville’s analysis of the nine demographics came after holding focus groups with medical students from diverse backgrounds and listening to their perceptions on teaching and learning in the MBChB programme.

‘Most of the obvious indices of the diversity that we strive for show significant differences when examined independently. However, in combination, several turn out to fade into the background compared to schooling, tertiary education, the standards of difficulty of successive assessments and lastly – and minimally – the more directly cognitive aspect of students’ matric performance.’

Commenting on the small impact of matric performance, Sommerville said he suspected that today’s average high school student might have an advantage in the MBChB programme over some of the high fliers. His observation was that at university, some of the latter did not cope because they knew from high school that they could open their books the night before and excel in the next day’s examination.

‘Suddenly it does not work like that anymore because they now have to sit and understand the information – and some have never learned to do that.’

Sommerville mentioned that medical schools in a number of countries evidently believed that achieving ‘straight As’ was not enough to excel in medicine and added pre-selection interviews to their recruitment process.

Sommerville said, however, that it was not easy to measure an applicant’s dedication, commitment and conscientiousness simply from a pre-selection interview, particularly in South Africa, as students come from very diverse backgrounds.

A firm believer in problem-based learning, Sommerville said students with previous tertiary education experience were more likely to do well throughout the MBChB curriculum, possibly because they had already developed some independence of thinking.

author email :