Student doctors keep their finger on the pulse

March 26, 1999

Newcastle is the first medical school in Britain to get a quality thumbs-up. Olga Wojtas looks at the case

Newcastle University medical school has just won 24 points out of 24 in the teaching quality assessment, the first school in the country to receive its final report from the Quality Assurance Agency.

A key reason for its success is the part students play in decisions about their teaching. The QAA said "impressive" numbers of staff and students were involved in curriculum management and development. It praised the school's consultative and open approach, giving students full representation on all its boards, committees and working groups.

Newcastle decided it needed more student feedback as it set about revamping the curriculum in the wake of the 1993 General Medical Council report, Tomorrow's Doctors, which urged a shift to student-centred learning.

"It's important to ensure that what you're designing as a curriculum is actually what's being delivered, and get the students' perceptions on whether it's appropriate and relevant," said clinical sub-dean Sheila Macphail. "The students rise to the occasion and they have a very powerful voice."

They were unhappy that in one of the senior years clinical skills were confined to a 12-week block. They also gave up a week's holiday to enable another five-week block to be taught later in the year. Students complained that a shift to semesterisation left them too long without feedback. A short exam eight weeks into the course was introduced two years ago.

"It's been a great success and the students said it was very helpful," said fifth-year student Emma Bywaters, a member of the board of medical studies.

The students also initiated a complex overhaul of the personal tutor system. First-year students have "parents" and "grandparents" in the second and third years. Students wanted to maximise support by having the same tutors for each academic family.

Tutors now have larger year groups who transfer en masse midway through their course from academic to clinical tutors.

Student representatives are generally nominated by the medical and dental student society. They seem unfazed by sitting alongside senior staff.

"It's not intimidating," said Ms Bywaters. "Our opinions are listened to. We're really working in collaboration. It's not a matter of students saying 'This is dreadful, change it' and staff saying 'No'. It's all of us trying to work out what the problems are. It's much more a group effort."

The emphasis in medicine on communication skills helps students to analyse how they are taught and then relay problems to staff, she said. These can be dealt with much more quickly than through the standard method of post-course questionnaires.

"It makes us enjoy being here more, because we feel valued."

Second-year student Kate Duffield, also on the board of medical studies, said there was a student request to be taught sign language in first year to enhance communication skills.

"It was considered by the board that the curriculum was full enough, and maybe we could take this on in our own time. I don't think any of our ideas is ever ridiculed. We're not made to feel stupid or little."

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