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Student Notebook

Recognizing teachers
By David Bauer

Trying to master all of the facts that medical school requires students to learn is like trying to put together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture on the cover of the box. Students want to see the big picture and to understand how all the disparate facts fit together. A good teacher helps to make that understanding happen.

Dartmouth Medical School has a long tradition of recognizing outstanding teachers. For many years, each graduating class has presented two faculty teaching awards, one in the basic sciences and one in the clinical sciences. The recipients are invited to participate in the hooding ceremony at Class Day. But why wait four years to let someone know how much their teaching is appreciated?

If you visit the offices of these outstanding members of the faculty, you'll find their awards displayed with pride.
Illustration: Suzanne DeJohn

In the spring of 2001, the first-year Class of '04 decided that it would be nice to give more immediate recognition for great teaching. And so they presented Dr. Elmer Pfefferkorn with an award for his ability to help students learn virology. That impulse has since morphed into the annual "Excellence in Teaching Awards."

Kudos: The basic and clinical science awards are still presented by the graduating students at Class Day, but the new awards give underclass students a chance to offer some kudos as well. The '04s had a barbeque in the spring of 2001 to honor the winners—Dr. Pfefferkorn, as well as Dr. Matthew Heintzelman, who teaches histology, and Dr. Lee Witters, who teaches biochemistry—and presented them with certificates, full-size photos of the professors' faces attached to amusing bodies, as well many verbal thank-yous. If you visit their offices, you'll find their awards displayed with pride.

The following fall, when my Class of '05 entered DMS, we assumed that these teaching awards were traditional. So we wasted no time in electing the professors who had been our best guides through the treacherous terrain of first year. Last spring, the second annual barbeque was held to honor the winners selected by the first-years as well as the members of the second-year class.

But what exactly is it that makes a good teacher? Dr. Martha Regan- Smith, coordinator of faculty development, explored that question in her thesis for her Ed.D. at Harvard. She interviewed hundreds of medical students to identify what they considered to be the most helpful teaching strategies. They turned out to be clarity, thinking about content, relevance, motivation to learn, and teacher respect. "Clarity" is achieved when facts are presented, a few at a time, slowly enough for students to learn them. "Thinking about content" means presenting the material in a way that allows students to put it in context. "Relevance" involves connecting new knowledge with students' prior experience and understanding. "Motivation to learn" is enhanced when teachers inspire students by conveying the beauty, awe, and wonder of medicine in a way that reminds us of why we entered the field in the first place. "Teacher respect" means teachers treat students as people likely to succeed. This has a powerful influence on learning. Students gain self-confidence, are more motivated to learn, and will probably want to emulate teachers who respect their abilities.

Respectful: There's something else going on here, too. In the process of recognizing our teachers, we hope to build a medical community that is supportive, comfortable, and respectful. Dr. Joseph O'Donnell, senior advising dean, agrees. It's like giving people a pat on the back for a job well done—a simple gesture, but one that is often overlooked. Sue Ann Hennessy, assistant dean for student affairs, describes graduate schools of management that encourage future leaders to praise their colleagues as a way of recognizing what they do well. This idea is not often implemented in medical schools. But, for DMS students, thanking those who help us in our path to becoming physicians is central to the Excellence in Teaching Awards.

This year, because of the importance the awards have assumed, the DMS Student Government decided to formalize the process and give even greater recognition to these outstanding individuals. This does not mean the awards will be less fun, but it will give more public acknowledgment to the winners. Winners' pictures will be displayed at the Medical School and at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. The reason for a public exhibition is to emphasize that teaching is one of the main focuses of DMS.

Focus on teaching: Awards will be given to an outstanding lecturer by both the first- and the second-year class; to an outstanding small-group leader for the first- and second-year class; and to an outstanding educator who works with students in many areas, including those unrelated to class work. The third- and fourth-year students are also in the process of developing awards for individuals who are critical to their education on the wards.

Where do we go from here? This spring the nomination process begins for the 2003 Excellence in Teaching Awards, and in the fall the awards honoring our outstanding teachers will be displayed. We will proudly present awards to those teachers who have best distilled hundreds of years of medical information (all those pieces of the jigsaw puzzle) into clear, relevant concepts for their students. But we hope the awards will be a beginning, not an end. The real goal is to start a trend of giving each other unsolicited pats on the back and thankyous. That will be an important step toward a more supportive, comfortable, and respectful medical community.

"Student Notebook" (formerly titled "Student Perspective") shares word of the activities or opinions of students and trainees. Bauer is a member of the Dartmouth Medical School M.D. Class of 2005 and serves on the teaching awards committee about which he writes in this essay. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Denver.

If you would like to offer any feedback about this article, we would welcome getting your comments at DartMed@Dartmouth.edu.

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