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Objectives

The University of Virginia School of Medicine recently transformed its pre-clerkship medical education programme to emphasise student engagement and active learning in the classroom. As in other medical schools, many students are opting out of attending class and others are inattentive while in class. We sought to understand why, especially with a new student-centred curriculum, so many students were still opting to learn on their own outside of class or to disengage from educational activities while in class.

Methods

Focus groups were conducted with students from two classes who had participated in the new curriculum, which is designed to foster small-group and collaborative learning. The sessions were audio-recorded and then transcribed. The authors read through all of the transcripts and then reviewed them for themes. Quotes were analysed and organised by theme.

Results

Interview transcripts revealed candid responses to questions about learning and the learning environment. The semi-structured nature of the interviews enabled the interviewers to probe unanticipated issues (e.g. reasons for choosing to sit with friends although that diminishes learning and attention). A content analysis of these transcripts ultimately identified three major themes embracing multiple sub-themes: (i) learning studio physical space; (ii) interaction patterns among learners, and (iii) the quality of and engagement in learning in the space.

Conclusions

Students' reluctance to engage in class activities is not surprising if classroom exercises are passive and not consistently well designed or executed as active learning exercises that students perceive as enhancing their learning through collaboration. Students' comments also suggest that their reluctance to participate regularly in class may be because they have not yet achieved the developmental level compatible with adult and active learning, on which the curriculum is based. Challenges include helping students better understand the nature of deep learning and their own developmental progress as learners, and providing robust faculty development to ensure the consistent deployment of higher-order learning activities linked with higher-order assessments.