Join us as we discuss how to approach “The Struggling Learner” with Dr. Melissa McNeil (@missydoc0128), Professor Medicine and Associate Chief of General Internal Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), recorded LIVE in Pittsburgh, PA! In this episode, we discuss how to approach the struggling learner, highlighting the 5-Step process discussed in a recent article co-written by Dr. McNeil (Merriam 2019). This episode is not intended to give educators a roadmap for how to develop and implement a corrective action plan, but was put together to provide a common toolset on how to approach a struggling learner. As such, the topics discussed can be applied to all kinds of learners that struggle, not just in medicine. However, the techniques discussed involve a common framework routinely taught in medical education (assessment, diagnosis, and referral) and, therefore, is communicated using this shared language.
Written and Produced by: Stuart Brigham MD
Infographic: Matthew Watto MD, FACP
Cover Art: Stuart Brigham MD
Hosts: Matthew Watto MD, FACP; Paul Williams MD, FACP; Stuart Brigham, MD
Editor: Stuart Brigham MD (written materials); Clair Morgan at Nodderly.com
Guest: Melissa McNeil MD, MACP
Special thanks to Dr. William Kelly, FACP, FCCP
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These were provided Dr. William Kelly from the Uniformed Service University (USU) in Bethesda, MD. They can be used to help identify common pitfalls encountered by learners and are intended to be discussed in a small group format. An accompanying paper by Dr. Kelly (Andrews, 2018) and the Self-Regulated Learning (SRL) Technique are discussed during this Grand Rounds presentation. Dr. Kelly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions on the Self-Regulated Learning Technique (see SRL example images below) and any inquiries about the Uniformed Service University’s teaching seminars.
“If you don’t care enough about somebody to want to help them get better… that’s what not giving feedback means. It means I don’t think you can get better and I don’t care enough to help you.”Dr. Melissa McNeil
“Sometimes hard feedback is what people need to hear.”Dr. Melissa McNeil
Teaching is difficult, especially in the world of medicine. Oftentimes, academic physicians find themselves mired by necessities of both providing safe, evidence based patient care while simultaneously teaching others. These competing factors complicate an already difficult situation when faced with learners who struggle. It can be easy to shrug these learners off as someone who “…just doesn’t get it.” However, this doesn’t provide any kind of framework to approach these learners and is, frankly, a lazy approach. Think about approaching the struggling learner in the same way we approach patients. A physician shouldn’t just look at an uncontrolled diabetic as a “…patient who just doesn’t get it.” This subconsciously labels the patient’s care as “futile,” because it doesn’t highlight the why for the issues they struggle with.
The skills that are developed for clinical reasoning are instrumental in identifying why a learner is struggling. Just like correctly diagnosing a patient, in order to provide effective feedback to a learner, the underlying issue must first be defined. This involves knowing the chief complaint and uncovering the history of present illness. Illness scripts, used commonly in the field of clinical reasoning, are similarly important when identifying the pertinent positives and negatives in learners, not just patients. These scripts are necessary when developing the learner’s differential diagnosis, which generally include one of four categories: Professionalism, knowledge/synthesis, organization, and communication. Just like in clinical reasoning, particular emphasis must be placed on those observed behaviors that either fit or don’t fit the illness script. The symptoms of these diagnoses, taken from Dr. McNeil’s paper (Merriam 2019) are:
Feedback should be provided in real time with the learners and specific to the behaviors identified. It may require pulling the learner to the side after the initial encounter to help ask probing questions to help better flesh out the learner’s diagnosis and name the behavior. Is this learner having difficulty with knowledge/synthesis? Do they have difficulty organizing their thoughts? Are they having difficulty with communication in general? When providing this feedback, academic physicians must be concrete. Solely providing positive feedback creates a false sense of confidence in learners and will only serve to perpetuate these behaviors.
Providing effective remediation is paramount to correcting behaviors that cause our learners to struggle. However, remediation that is targeted towards behaviors that are symptoms of a deeper problem is unlikely to correct the underlying problems. This is akin to giving antipyretics to a patient with pneumonia without administering antibiotics to address the underlying disease.
Learners that are defensive with critical feedback should be a cause for concern. A learner that refuses to accept concrete, specific feedback can be dangerous to both themselves and their patients. When this occurs, the academic clinician may allow the learner to “hang themselves” with concrete, specific examples. This may require asking questions to which the learner may not have a response, allowing them to recognize their own deficiencies.
Listeners will identify practical tools, tips, and techniques using skills developed for patient care and appreciate what they can do when a learner is struggling.
After listening to this episode listeners will…
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Dr. McNeil reports no relevant financial disclosures. The Curbsiders report no relevant financial disclosures.
McNeil M, Brigham SK, Williams PN, Watto MF. “#193 The Struggling Learner with Dr Melissa McNeil”. The Curbsiders Internal Medicine Podcast. http://thecurbsiders.com/episode-list. February 3, 2020.
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