Learning Teams

Learning teams are a unique and central component of the Penn Med curriculum. An MS3 shares his experience and perspective on how his learning team has shaped his medical education.

I don’t know that I really appreciated the role of Learning Teams before starting at Penn, and I think that it’s difficult to. I was told that we’d be working in groups together, and that we’d become really close, but that didn’t seem too new to me. I’d worked in groups before.

You meet your Learning Team in the first few days of orientation as you’re taken to an off-campus retreat. Each incoming medical school class is divided into 12 Doctoring Groups, and each Doctoring Group is home to two Learning Teams of 7-8 students each. During the retreat, which is modeled closely off of the Wharton orientation, you go through all sorts of team-building exercises – you write skits, build tools, and generally reflect on how well you cooperate. We were told that business schools have long known how to enrich the leadership and collaborative skills of their students, and this is why the medical school has taken much of the exercises and general philosophy of Learning Teams from Wharton. It made sense to me.

Your Learning Team then guides you through the first 1.5 years of pre-clinical learning at Penn. There are certainly exceptions – you pick your own anatomy team of 4, and some of the discussion groups in Genetics and Epidemiology are arranged based on prior knowledge – but for the most part you work through problems with your Learning Team. Courses are typically structured with lectures in the morning followed by separate discussion-based problem solving sessions (“small groups”) where your learning team will work relatively independently and get assistance from circulating professors. Based on the course, small groups might entail reading clinical cases and answering questions, going through EKGs, or interpreting digital histology slides. When you work with the same group for roughly 2 hours per day, every day, you learn a lot about how the group functions and what needs to be done to ensure future success. Our group would have different “drivers” for each session, and these leaders gave our group direction and organization. Sometimes the driver was the one most familiar with that particular material, occasionally the driver was someone who had lots of questions and would take us through the session more methodically, and not infrequently the driver was simply the last person to arrive to class. We spruced up these sessions with snacks, and made a point to celebrate everyone’s birthday during small groups. Overall, seeing everyone day in and day out, and having no choice but to work and learn together, brought us all closer. There were few secrets, except for the one time when we were trying to schedule a group meeting in the afternoon and one member kept saying he was busy at each proposed time. Frustrated, we asked him what he was doing and when he’d be free, and he finally revealed to us that he driving out of Philly to buy/adopt a hedgehog. … Ok. We didn’t appreciate the secrecy, but we discovered a lot that day about keeping a hedgehog as a pet.

That isn’t to say that groups never have issues, and certainly there were tenser moments when material was difficult or when there were time pressures for finishing our work. One unique aspect to the Learning Teams relative to other group work is that most of the tests at Penn Med have a team component. What’s the best way to write down one concise answer to an open-ended question when there are 7 people, each with their own ideas and preferred phrasings? I’m still not sure that there’s a clear recipe for success, and I’m sorry Annie that you got stuck so often being the “scribe”. The process teaches you valuable lessons for teamwork and communication, and Penn makes sure to build in de-briefing sessions to reflect on your team functioning and any inter-personal conflicts. We strove to plan potluck dinners and social outings to maintain the health of our group too.

The Learning Team is also the group in which you first learn how to interact with standardized patients (actors portraying clinical scenarios, to teach out how to approach the doctor-patient relationship). I sat in front of my 6 teammates and a professor as I first struggled to interview friendly, then sad, then racist standardized patients. It was nerve-wracking to be observed in that way, but I’d much rather have done it in front of those close friends than others whom I didn’t know as well. Maybe that’s what why the Learning Team bonds are so tight – not only do you spend time together, but you succeed together, struggle together, and learn how to be vulnerable with each other. I’ve opened up to my Learning Team members in ways that would be rare with other friends, and that’s become especially true as we’ve transitioned into the clinical part of our training.

Now, on our clerkship rotations, we have Doctoring sessions with our two Learning Teams once per month rather than once a week. We talk about the stresses of adapting to the hospital routine, the mental demands of studying for standardized shelf exams, the exhaustion after working night shifts, the emotional burden of dealing with patients dying, and any other personal concerns that come up during what is certainly a transformative year. We also deal with the high points – the rotations that have inspired us, the moments that reaffirm our desire to go into medicine, and the paths we see ourselves heading down.

In one of our first potluck dinners at the beginning of medical school, we went around the room and took guesses at peoples’ future specialties. At that point it was based purely on initial impressions and personalities. We did a similar check-in recently, and it was informative to see how people have discovered their passions and molded their visions for the future. I can’t believe how far we’ve come and how much we’ve experienced together in the last 2+ years, and I’m grateful to have had the Learning Team structure to support all of us along the way.

Nilan Schnure is an MS3 from Bethesda, MD. He studied molecular biology at Princeton University before working for a year in clinical research at the UCSF Breast Care Center. In college he ran track and sang, which he’s tried unsuccessfully to do simultaneously to make the most of his free time during clerkship year.