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Context and setting Ethics, soft skills and professional behaviour have been acknowledged as important elements in our school’s curriculum since its inception 30 years ago. Relevant inputs are imparted to students at various points in the timetable. In 2007, the Student Personal and Professional Development Programme (PPIP) was established to facilitate and coordinate ethics, soft skills and professional behaviour development in undergraduates. This report describes a major component of the PPIP, the BigSib programme.

Why the idea was necessary Our school was looking for various ways to implement ethics, soft skills and professional behaviour development programmes. A peer group mentoring programme offers a unique opportunity to develop students’ skills in such areas.

What was done The BigSib programme is an innovative, interactive and integrated programme run under the PPIP. It is designed to enhance and strengthen medical students’ training in soft skills and to support their professional development. This programme acts as a platform for interaction between the school, the seniors (Year 2 students) and Year 1 medical students, and helps the latter to adjust to their new, campus-based life. It also promotes personal development.

Year 2 students (BigSibs) are selected based on academic performance and an interview. The roles of BigSibs require them to act as Siblings, Eyes and Ears for the school, Counsellors, Role-models and Trainers (SECRET).

The programme’s focus includes the formation of positive attitudes such as resiliency, accountability and respect towards self, teachers, elders and peers, the promotion of racial integration and the development of soft skills such as self-directed learning, adaptation, teamwork, communication and leadership skills, as well as assertiveness and self-confidence.

BigSib activities consist of meetings between BigSibs and Year 1 students, participation in additional Year 1 activities and BigSib projects. BigSib–Year 1 student meetings are held at least once per month. In these, two BigSibs lead a group of Year 1 students and carry out six modules of their choice with their groups. Additional Year 1 activities include trial examinations, Year 1 community placements, a BigSib–Year 1 student camp and the BigSib dinner. BigSib projects are exclusive to BigSibs to ensure their involvement in organising and implementing a project. A subgroup of BigSibs will be tasked to organise a project for the rest of the members.

Weekly meetings for planning activities are held between the BigSibs and the BigSib supervisor from the Medical Education Department.

Evaluation of results and impact A cross-sectional study was carried out in January 2008. This study evaluated medical students’ perceptions of and attitudes towards the BigSib programme. Data were collected using a validated questionnaire, which was completed by 314 medical students from Years 1 and 2. Data analysis was performed using spss Version 12 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA). The study showed that medical students have very positive perceptions of and attitudes towards the BigSib programme; they perceive it as a successful and effective programme which helps in promoting and fostering the development of their soft skills and professionalism. Similar peer group mentoring programmes may be considered relevant for incorporation into the medical curriculum in the future.