Professor Ted Sommerville, a qualified Anaesthetist, Associate Professor in Medical Education, and Academic Co-ordinator of the fifth-year medical curriculum in the School of Clinical Medicine, has now earned a PhD in Higher Education.

Sommerville’s study focused on pedagogic factors in the medical curriculum at UKZN and suggested that the knowledge structure of medicine is such that a pedagogy which integrates the range of material to be learnt is likely to be effective. The study was recently presented at the conference on Global Perspectives on College and University Teaching held at Auburn University, Alabama.

The study investigated several demographic influences on MBChB students’ achievement. It revealed that the type of high school attended by students influenced their marks throughout their course, and that students with previous tertiary education experience tended to do better than others in the MBChB programme. Variations between successive assessments were significant, as were students’ matric point scores.

When examined individually, age, sex and facilitator background had no significant impact on the marks of the cohort of students studied for the duration of their degree programme. Students’ first language, race, and the financing of their studies seemed to influence their achievements when viewed in isolation. However, when combined with other factors, these three also proved insignificant.

Sommerville said the findings could have implications for student admissions, curriculum structuring, planning interventions to help struggling students, and for the pre-medical education sphere. The demographic study added to and in places contrasted with various other studies at school and university level that had documented factors that could influence students’ assessment marks – the ultimate measure of academic success or failure.

Sommerville’s study was inspired by his desire 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 the information overload that has for so long been a feature of medical teaching may lead to passive acceptance without long-term retention. ‘If the sort of information we teach students is held on to for a while and then forgotten, then that is a great pity. I try to make them think. That’s my conviction,’ he said. 

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,’ he said. 

Sommerville’s analysis of the pedagogy and of nine demographics was based on focus groups with medical students from diverse backgrounds during which they shared their perceptions on teaching and learning in the MBChB programme. ‘Most of the obvious indicators of the diversity for which we strive at UKZN 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 assessments and lastly – and minimally – the more obviously cognitive aspect of students’ performance in matric,’ said Sommerville. 

He indicated that medical schools in a number of countries evidently believed that achieving straight A’s was not enough to excel in medicine, and had added pre-selection interviews to their recruitment process. However, 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 in the MBChB curriculum, possibly because they had already developed some independence of thinking.

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