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Why “looking dumb” in medical school isn’t such a bad thing

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

If I had to choose one theme that has stood out in the first weeks of medical school, it would be this: questions, questions, and more questions. In the first class on our first day of medical school, our professor set the tone by laying down the requirement that we ask a minimum of ten questions before the lecture was over. Based on my experience in large undergraduate lectures, where questions were as rare as rain in Palo Alto, I naively thought this would be a challenge for us. To my surprise, we met the challenge and probably asked at least twenty questions in that first class alone.

This first day set the tone for the rest of our time together so far, and my class has quickly gained a reputation among the faculty for the volume of questions that we ask. It's a common occurrence for a lecturer to be moving along smoothly, only to look up and see four or five hands in the air, of people waiting patiently to ask for clarifications, pose hypothetical situations, or simply admit that the last lecture slide was way too confusing. More than one class session has been derailed and run out of time because of our frequent interruptions. One of our professors memorably poked fun at us by hinting – not very subtly – that our class had no problem with “looking dumb” in front of our peers.

Given the amount of important information and interesting ideas that I’ve learned through my classmates’ questions, I’ve quickly come to feel that learning how to ask questions is an important part of my early medical training. However, this can be a difficult thing. By asking a question in public, you're more or less admitting to everybody in the room that you didn’t know the answer; that you needed help from somebody else to get the information. Only certain learning environments – namely, with a close group of non-judgmental peers and willing professors – are conducive to this.

With that in mind, what will happen with our class as we move through our medical training? I’m hopeful that our willingness to ask questions will continue, along with the receptiveness of our teachers and mentors. As first-year medical students, we’re not expected to have a vast medical knowledge yet, so admitting “I don’t know” is relatively easy. But what will happen in a few years, when we reach the clinics and are expected to be able to put the knowledge from our first two years to use? Or more importantly, what will happen when we are fully trained physicians, and our patients expect us to have all the answers? When we don’t have the answers, will we be as willing to ask for help as we are now? As a patient, I would certainly hope that my physician would be willing to ask the right questions when needed. Because of this, I think our class can and should aspire to keeping the flood of questions coming.

Nathaniel Fleming is a first-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research.

Image by Kaz

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