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The new USA Active Learning Center, pictured above, allows students to interact with real-life medical situations and exercise critical thinking skills rather than learning them in a traditional lecture format.
The 2012 United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 results for the University of South Alabama College of Medicine show that the class of 2014 medical students have scored above the national average. The USMLE Step 1 exam is the first of three exams the students take to assess their ability to apply knowledge, concepts and principles, and to demonstrate fundamental patient-centered skills.
According to Dr. Susan LeDoux, associate dean for medical education and student affairs and professor and vice chair of the department of cell biology and neuroscience at USA, the national average score last year was 224, and USA’s medical students scored an average of 226 on this year’s exam. “Last year's national average pass rate for first time takers was 94 percent,” she said. “We have a 97 percent pass rate this year, which is above the national average.”
According to Dr. LeDoux, the official breakdown of statistics will not be available until March of 2013. “What we do know is that we are above the national average for last year in both the mean score and pass rate,” she said.
Dr. LeDoux says that the USA College of Medicine’s curriculum is moving more toward active learning exercises and has incorporated a new Integrated Case Studies course that helps the students prepare for the Step 1 exam. In this approach, students utilize team-based learning exercises using clinical vignette questions similar to those they will be given on the exam.
“The students like the integrated case studies approach,” said Dr. LeDoux. “They discuss and teach each other through exercises completed in groups.”
Much of this new curriculum is being conducted in a new College of Medicine Active Learning Center that was completed last spring. “This was the first class that was able to use the Active Learning Center, and it probably contributed to better scores,” said Dr. LeDoux. “The new facility allows students to interact with real-life medical situations and exercise critical thinking skills rather than just learning them in a traditional lecture format.”
According to Dr. Abu-Bakr-Al-Mehdi, associate professor of pharmacology at USA, the new curriculum is now more integrated. Traditional discipline-based basic science courses will be replaced with a two-year sequence of modules devoted to different organ systems.
Dr. Jeffrey Sosnowski, assistant dean of medical education and assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience at USA, says that the scores indicate that active learning can be used to boost USMLE scores. “The purpose of the Integrated Case Studies course is to pull different organ systems together and discuss diseases that may cross different organ systems and work through them,” he said. “The combination of students being more active and participating in different types of learning exercises keeps them more engaged.”
Dr. Al-Mehdi says one of the formats of this course included team-based learning where the students are given problem solving exercises that require group answers to questions unfamiliar to them. The group then answers the questions together and afterward it is discussed and explained to them as a class.
Another change in this year's first-year curriculum is the opportunity for students to have interaction with patients during their first semester. “This new curriculum gives our students a much broader patient interaction in their first year, which we did not have before,” he said.
Dr. Al-Mehdi said that the majority of students responded very well to this technique, and the ongoing curriculum changes incorporate more active learning, moving to systems and competency-based curriculum. This method of teaching focuses more on the aspects of being a physician, including professionalism and developing strong communication skills.
“They liked the format, and most students say this really helped them. I hope we can keep up the momentum,” said Dr. Al-Mehdi. “This method of teaching shows them real clinical problems, and I think all of these methods are helping.”
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