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Medical students are skipping class lectures: Does it matter?


Medical students are taking more control over how and when they learn. It’s a practice propelled by the pandemic, but it started long before COVID shifted many traditional classrooms to virtual education.

New technologies, including online lectures and guided-lesson websites, along with alternative teaching methods, such as the flipped classroom model, in which med students complete before-class assignments and participate in group projects, are helping to train future physicians for their medical careers.

So though students may not be attending in-person lectures like they did in the past, proponents of online learning say the education students receive and the subsequent care they deliver remains the same.

The Association of American Medical Colleges’ most recent annual survey of 2nd-year medical students found that 25% “almost never” attended their in-person lectures in 2022. The figure has steadily improved since 2020 but mirrors what AAMC recorded in 2017.

“The pandemic may have exacerbated the trend, but it’s a long-standing issue,” said Katherine McOwen, senior director of educational and student affairs at AAMC. She said in an interview that she’s witnessed the pattern for 24 years in her work with medical schools.

“I know it sounds alarming that students aren’t attending lectures. But that doesn’t mean they’re not learning,” said Ahmed Ahmed, MD, MPP, MSc, a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School and now a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.

Today’s generation of medical students grew up in the age of technology. They are comfortable in front of the screen, so it makes sense for them to learn certain aspects of medical sciences and public health in the same way, Dr. Ahmed told this news organization.

Dr. Ahmed said that at Harvard he participated in one or two case-based classes per week that followed a flipped classroom model, which allows students to study topics on their own before discussing in a lecture format as a group. “We had to come up with a diagnostic plan and walk through the case slide by slide,” he said. “It got us to think like a clinician.”

The flipped classroom allows students to study at their own pace using their preferred learning style, leading to more collaboration in the classroom and between students, according to a 2022 article on the “new standard in medical education” published in Trends in Anaesthesia & Critical Care.

Students use online education tools to complete pre-class assignments such as watching short videos, listening to podcasts, or reading journal articles. In-class time can then be used to cement and create connections through discussions, interactive exercises, group learning, and case studies, the article stated.

Benefits of the flipped classroom include student satisfaction, learner motivation, and faculty interest in learning new teaching methods, according to the article: “Students are performing at least as well as those who attended traditional lectures, while some studies in select health care settings show increased retention in flipped classroom settings.”

Another study on the flipped classroom, published in 2018 in BMC Medical Education found that the teaching method was superior to traditional classrooms for health professions education. Researchers focused specifically on flipped classrooms that provided prerecorded videos to students.

Molly Cooke, MD, director of education for global health sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, said that the school no longer requires attendance at lectures. “Personally, my position is that medical students are very busy people and make, by and large, rational decisions about how to spend their time. As learning and retention from 50-minute lectures has been shown for decades to be poor, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to watch lectures on their own time.”

Dr. Ahmed agrees. “By our standards, the old model is archaic. It’s passive, and instead we should be encouraging lifelong, self-directed learning.”

To that end, Dr. Ahmed and his fellow students also relied heavily during medical school on secondary educational sources such as Boards and Beyond and Sketchy. “There’s an entire community of medical school students across the country using them,” Dr. Ahmed explained. “You can learn what you need in a tenth of the time of lectures.”

Today lectures only provide a portion of the information delivered to students, Dr. McGowen said. “They also learn in small groups, in problem-solving sessions, and in clinical experiences, all of which make up the meat of their education.”

The purpose of medical school is to prepare students for residency, she added. “Medical school education is very different from other types of education. Students are examined in a variety of ways before they move on to residency and ultimately, practice.”

For example, every student must pass the three-part United States Medical Licensing Examination. Students complete the first two parts in medical school and the third part during residency. “The tests represent a combination of everything students have learned, from lectures, clinical time, and in self-directed learning,” Dr. McGowen said.

Post pandemic, the tools and styles of learning in medical education have changed, and they are likely to continue to evolve along with students and technology, according to the 2022 article on the flipped classroom. “The future of medical education will continue to move in ways that embrace digital technology, as this is what digital native learners are increasingly expecting for their health care education,” states the article.

A version of this article first appeared on

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