Designing a guide to study resources for medical students entering a dissertation project

The undergraduate Medicine degree at the University of Edinburgh is six years long, and includes an ‘intercalated’ year where students complete one year of another degree at Honours level. This takes place in their third year, sandwiched between the pre-clinical and clinical parts of their programme. This almost always means the students will be doing a dissertation project, which can be a steep learning curve.

I know this because it often comes up in the one-to-one meetings I have with students about their literature searches. So I have created a guide to literature review and study skills resources, in the hope I can help the transition from medical student to Honours student.

They now have to investigate a topic themselves, often independently, and sometimes with research methods that are new to them (I’m looking at you, systematic reviews). As one student put it, “now I have to write an argument. No one’s ever asked me to have an opinion before.”

A pad of paper with a mind map
Planning the content of the guide.

A colleague who sees medical students intercalating in social science programmes, described these students;

“medical students are completely different. They’re always on time, they’ve always done the homework”

While of course it’s a generalisation, in my experience it’s fairly accurate! And because of this, I am doing something I know I shouldn’t… I am throwing a load of information at them all at once. Bear with me.

This guide is something they can return to. My goal is to have a link to it on their virtual learning environment. I’d like to arm them with as much support as possible, because I know they need it (from my experience of these one-to-ones) but also because I am sure for every student who asks for a meeting with me, there are probably ten who don’t know I exist, don’t know they can ask me these thing, or know I exist and they can ask me but don’t for whatever reasons.

Screenshot of libguide software
I’ve used libguides software to build the guide.

I see a lot of them in timetabled sessions but that doesn’t always mean they make the connection with their dissertation literature reviews, especially if those two things occur four or five months apart. I’m also hoping it might reduce the need for face-to-face meetings with students by answering questions before they arise. While these kinds of meetings are one of my favourite things about my job (I’m so nosy!) they are time consuming and not always necessary, and it can be hard judge that beforehand.

So my headline subjects covered in the guide are;

  • Doing a literature review
  • Where can I find research literature on my topic?
  • Academic writing
  • Referencing
  • Doing a systematic review

I am very much pointing readers to resources and sources of information, rather than providing advice (except in the case of finding literature); introductory paragraphs followed by key books, videos, websites and curated Leganto resource lists. I’ve embedded a video from the Cochrane Library on the page about doing a systematic review. A lot of things came straight to mind, a lot of things I needed to hunt for useful resources.

Following suggestions from other Academic Support Librarians of particular things they find these students struggle with, I’ve been sure to add information on;

  • checking whether it is a systematic review or literature review they are expected to do. Sometimes medical students presume it is a systematic review because that is what they know or have been told about previously. But after some digging, it’s not (and sometimes it doesn’t matter).
  • emphasising that the databases they are familiar with e.g Medline, may not be the most appropriate for them to use in whatever subject they’re doing.
  • And also that non-medical databases can be quite different to what they’re used to, in particular social sciences databases.
libguide dbs
Part of the guide, as it appears on the library website.

I’ve had positive feedback from colleagues, and my next step is to get some feedback from current intercalating students. And then it’s a case of advertising it to current year 3s, and probably to current year 2s as well towards the latter part of the academic year.

Fortuitously timed, I found out last week that the director of the intercalated year is planning to put together a toolkit, and that this guide would fit perfectly with it, and we have since been put in touch. Fantastic!

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