On Learning Environment

Eberhard Renner, MD
Head – Department of Internal  Medicine

“Learning Environment” must be amongst the strongest candidates for the (academic) buzz word of the year. It has all the ingredients for becoming the winner: short, easy to remember – and ill defined. No wonder it is part of everybody’s vocabulary at appropriate and less appropriate occasions.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that we shouldn’t pay attention to the circumstances in which our trainees are held accountable for improving their knowledge and skills, nor do I believe they shouldn’t be asked about their perception of these circumstances. That said, I find it interesting that trainees seem today to be the only ones that are asked for their opinion, and their perception is often taken as the most important, if not sole source of truth when it comes to so important things as program accreditation.

Also, have you ever heard somebody talk about the teaching environment? Have you ever been asked as a teacher how you perceive the circumstances you have to teach in? Has anybody ever attempted to put the two sides of the coin – learning and teaching environment – together into a more holistic view before jumping to conclusions? Who is making efforts to develop solid, evidence based instruments and metrics to gauge the circumstances in which learning and teaching can proceed in the most effective way?

Along the same line, how do we measure teaching quality? It cannot be that we simply rely on immediate trainee feedback which inherently risks reflecting simply a teacher’s popularity. I would respectfully submit that a teacher’s popularity is not necessarily congruent with the quality of his/her teaching. In particular not if the trainee is contemporaneously asked. If we look back, most of us will judge the value of certain learning experiences differently in retrospect than at the time we were in the midst of them. It is also highly unlikely that the number of words a teacher uses in a written feedback on a trainee’s performance multiplied by some fudge factor has anything to do with teaching quality, regardless of whether the resulting score is given with two decimal points suggesting an objectivity and accuracy that can hardly be there.

In academic research, peer review processes are well established and used since a long time to judge quality. When I was in high school the school principal used to sit from time to time as an unscheduled observer in our class to assess the teacher’s quality. This was admittedly a long time ago, and I am not sure whether it still happens today. But why are no such (or other) peer-review processes involved in measuring the quality of academic teaching activities?

Even more importantly perhaps, does anybody track whether and to what extent our trainees grow mid and long-term into the academic and/or community roles and positions they were meant to be trained for, and whether doing so they successfully serve the societal needs, i.e. whether our training programs produce down the road the desired end-products?

Granted, this is all more complex than simply asking for contemporaneous feedback by trainees and for their subjective perception of the “learning environment” (whatever that means). But it would likely yield a more meaningful measure of the quality of our teachers and training programs, i.e. would give us a more solid basis for actions aimed to improve the current state, a goal we should always aspire to!