Practical Tips for Teaching and Mentoring Your Medical Students

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Clinician instructors are tasked with helping medical students refine their critical thinking, empowering them to ask relevant questions, and encouraging further inquiries.
Clinician instructors are tasked with helping medical students refine their critical thinking, empowering them to ask relevant questions, and encouraging further inquiries.

“When one teaches, two learn.” –Robert Half

Just before 1 PM on Friday afternoons, I take on an additional role. I work with a third-year medical student from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in my clinic — one of the many facets of my work that I find profoundly fulfilling.

We all teach. Whether we're explaining to a patient why diabetes increases the risk of coronary artery disease, asking a medical student questions after presenting a patient, or giving a talk to our colleagues, we're helping to convey knowledge and exchange concepts. It's one of the privileges of being a physician. But isn't teaching about more than what and how much you know? If you're like me, you're constantly seeking ways to improve. Teaching should be no exception. I wanted to offer a few key points that may be helpful in your quest to continually refine your skills.

This brief list is by no means the final word, or provided to suggest that I have all the answers, or that any of this is easy. In that humble spirit, here's a brief distillation of what trainees have told me, and what I've personally observed.

1. Give guidance on your objectives from the beginning.

One of my colleagues, Dr. Tuan Dang, shared this particular pearl with me. He provides a written set of goals or objectives to each third-year medical student he teaches in his outpatient clinic before the first day of the rotation. Setting expectations not only provides clarity, a road map, but also stokes enthusiasm. It's like a preview of coming attractions. Some of my expectations include helping students cultivate an appreciation for and encouraging them to use evidence-based literature.

On the first day, the student and I also discuss expectations on housekeeping items. One of mine is that if a student sees a patient, they should expect to write a note (I believe in fully immersing trainees). Students will often ask questions such as: “Is there a particular note template you prefer that I use?”; or “How much time should I spend with each patient?”

2. Offer options.

I offer the student working with me every month a choice: complete the entire history and physical, with no particular time limit, and present the patient; or have me in the room with them while they're with the patient, as a silent fly on the wall, ready to help if the student gets stuck and wants to call a “time-out.” Keep in mind that some afternoons, due to logistics, this may not be feasible.

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