To Teach is to Learn Twice

Posted in GUMC Stories

In early August 2009, two Georgetown medical student leaders approached Stephen Ray Mitchell, M.D., dean of medical education at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, with a proposal. They wanted the school to support a student-run tutoring program — so-called “peer to peer” tutoring.

Coincidentally, Mitchell had been brainstorming with David Taylor, M.Ed., assistant dean for student learning at the medical school, about starting a tutoring program similar to the one used in the Georgetown Experimental Medical Studies (GEMS), which embraces mentoring and collaborative learning strategies to help students improve academic skills for success in medical education.

Mitchell seized upon the request of the student leaders, Jeff Orr, (M’11), and Hahn Soe-Lin, (M’12), and asked Taylor to work with them to establish a new tutoring program for medical students. Within three months, he provided an administrative and educational framework in which all tutors are trained to facilitate active, collaborative learning strategies, and tutees provide constant feedback.

Soe-Lin, M.D., now in his first postgraduate year in general surgery at Case Medical Center, participated as a tutor in the inaugural year of the program, and remembers it to be quite an adjustment. Peer to peer tutoring had long been used among Georgetown graduate students in courses taken as part of the Special Masters in Physiology Program, with the goal to turn “good students into excellent students,” Soe-Lin says. Now the mandate was to focus on all medical students to fine-tune learning strategies across the spectrum of student performance.

For students seeking “to sharpen and deepen their knowledge base, the program unquestionably provides protected one-on-one time with an upper level classmate who can provide clinical context to the basic sciences, and thus enrich that individual’s education in a way that is very complementary to the formal didactic curriculum.”

The program also has immense value for the tutor, Soe-Lin adds. “I feel that the concept of peer tutoring is one that would have value at medical schools across the country,” he says. “A profession that requires teaching at all levels – whether a resident teaching medical students, or an attending teaching residents or even patients – should provide early and frequent opportunities to gain teaching experience. The program fills this need.”

“‘To teach is to learn twice’,” quotes Mitchell. “We always strive to create a learning environment where every learner has all the support they need. Peer tutoring allows those medical student peers with a passion for teaching to contribute to this culture.”

Program Reflects Georgetown’s Commitment to Help Others

Now into its third year, the program has tutored approximately 180 students, according to Cameron Jones, M.Sc., assistant dean of students affairs. And this year, more than 50 students have already signed up to participate as tutors — 20 more than last year, says Jones, who has assumed administrative duties for the program. “This is an innovative initiative.”

“I love this program. It is really unique – driven by students for other students,” says Amanda Pysher (M’13). This is the third year she has worked as a tutor and coordinator.

Pysher also tutored fellow students while an undergraduate, and she finds it a great way to review subject matter. That is so much more helpful in medical school, she says. “We are constantly learning new things, and if you don’t review what you learned in the first several years, it is easy to forget a lot of things.”

This kind of review also shows Pysher how far she has come. “Every time I tutor a student, I realize how far I have come in my four years of med school – how much we have all learned,” she says. “It is easy to lose sight of that when you are surrounded by attending physicians who have been practicing for 20 years.”

Most of all, Pysher believes the peer to peer program reflects “Georgetown’s attitude, its commitment to helping others. The tutors are largely doing this as a way to help the younger classes.”

Mike Block (M’14) who tutored last year, is the third year coordinator, which means that he helps recruits tutors and trains them, among other tasks. Not only does he say that he really enjoys working with his fellow students, Block sees tutoring as a way to sharpen his explanatory skills — expertise he says every doctor needs to effectively treat patients. “A physician’s role is changing to be more of an educator so that patients can have a hand in their own healthcare,” he says.

Jenny Van Kirk (M’14) says tutoring can be very challenging. “It pushes the tutor to understand information in a different capacity. Not only do you have to know the information well, but you also have to be able to present the information in a manner that makes sense for the tutee. The tutor is challenged to adapt to each individual student and their needs.”

But the big pay-off to Van Kirk, as it is to many tutors, “is the opportunity to interact with students in different classes and see them improve.”

One tutee, who wishes to remain anonymous, sought out Pysher after she started her anatomy class and ended up using the service at least one time for four different modules. This student said she has “always been someone that studies best by ‘teaching’ or working with others. In med school your peers don’t always have the time to want to review the same material.

“I would recommend the service to others especially at the start of school since there is a ton of material and lots of different ways to review it so having someone that has done well in the past help guide me was great,” she says.

The School of Medicine intranet used by the peer to peer program offers feedback from tutees. Among them was this comment: “She challenges me to have a better understanding of the material while helping me feel confident in my understanding. Thanks!”

Says Taylor, “I get excited each time I see peers teaching their peers for the greater benefit of everyone — and most importantly future patients.”

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications
(Published Sept. 12, 2012)