February 01, 2022

Hubner & Academic Success Team help students manage medical education, USMLE preparation

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Hubner BrookMedical school is challenging.

Brook Hubner, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education and director of Academic Success, leads a team of learning specialists who advise medical students on study strategies, learning methodologies, and test preparation to help them succeed.

Hubner answered questions about the role of her team in the medical school and their offerings, along with how the office has pivoted to help students navigate recent changes to the USMLE Step 1 exam.

Q: How do you define Academic Success and how is the team housed within the medical school?

BH: Academic Success is part of Medical Student Services, a larger team that supports medical students personally, professionally, and academically. Academic success means helping students succeed in medical school by supporting them during key academic transitions, preparing them for board exams, providing learning strategy guidance and troubleshooting, and helping them navigate needs related to disability services and accommodations. The Academic Success team supports students from pre-matriculation (for one specific cohort) all the way through their fourth year. We use data and evidence from the learning science literature to help students think about their approach to coursework.

We begin with a no-credit summer course for students identified through the admissions process who might benefit from early engagement before they matriculate into medical school.

Beginning in fundamentals, my team works with students on learning strategies, navigating the pace and volume of the curriculum, and understanding how they learn most effectively. So many of our students easily sailed through undergrad. Once they get to medical school, they have to adjust. No longer can they cram the few days or hours before an exam; they now need to navigate 10 to 20 hours of lecture material a week.

At the end of students’ second year, they take Step 1, the first of three medical licensure exams. Step 1 is a significant milestone in their journey as they must pass Step 1 to move on to clinical training. Throughout the MS2 year,  we offer class-wide preparation seminars provide individual advising on Step 1 preparation.

As the students transition to third year, we provide guidance on shelf exams, help them connect the preclinical test-taking skills they learned to their clinical exams, and help them prepare for Step 2. With the change to Step 1 as a pass/fail exam (This change became effective on Jan. 26, 2021.), we anticipate Step 2 will become more of a focus for residency programs. And so we're piloting a predictive model to help students think about their preparation needs and their competitiveness. This will also help Dr. Todd Peterson, assistant dean for Students who leads our Careers in Medicine program advise students on residency competitiveness.

Q: How is the Academic Success Team structured?

BH: Something that we've changed in the past couple of years is reframing staff from being called advisors to learning specialists. Members of the academic success team are experts in learning, and students come to us for a consult on troubleshooting what's working and what's not working for their academic work.

There are three members of the Academic Success team: Fahmida Bratina and Laura Johnson are our two learning specialists, and Caleb Rotton is an academic and career success advisor. Caleb also works closely with Dr. Peterson on the careers in medicine program, so he has experience in advising students from an academic perspective and supports Dr. Peterson.

Q: How are medical students paired with learning specialists?

BH: For ease of managing 186 students in each class, we use our Learning Communities as a way to divide the students across the advising team. That way no one person is overloaded. That said, we understand that personalities and approaches differ, and we encourage students to meet with the team member that is the best fit for their needs

I often work with our most at-risk students, but I have an open-door policy for any student who wishes to meet with me. I am also the liaison for UAB Disability Support Services. This means that if a student has a disability-related accommodation, I am their advocate in the school of medicine and work with the student and the faculty to make sure the students have access to the educational space.

Q: How does the team work to see the whole student and address non-academic factors that might be affecting academic performance?

BH: When our students are admitted to medical school, we know they have the foundation that will make them successful medical students. Once they get into the medical school environment, it often factors unrelated to the curriculum that can impact their success. I work closely with Dr. Nick Van Wagoner, associate dean for Students to make sure students have the resources they need. Together we work with teams in ODI: Student Affairs, UAB Medicine’s Office for Wellness, and UAB Disability Support Services to make sure that students are connected to resources and have support.

Q: Can you share details on the Peer Education program supported by Academic Success?

BH:  We have a team of more than 50 peer educators who provide individual tutoring for students that benefit from that type of one-on-one support. Our peer educators also lead mock anatomy practicals and provide large group, question-based sessions where they'll take up a tricky piece of the content for that week and work through it in a large group setting.

I’ve also developed a program called MSS study groups, an incredibly popular program that almost the entire first-year class participates in. Study groups consist of 5-6 students per group with a peer educator serving as facilitator. We have 32 groups who meet weekly to work through questions in a safe space to talk through their thought process. Two students create standardized question sets each week and send them to the peer educators for peer review before they are sent to the groups.

Q: How has the Peer Education program been received by students?

BH: We receive great feedback about the work that our peer educators do. And, based on the volume of applicants to be a peer educator, it’s clear that our students find value in supporting their peers.

Peer education is an important piece of our toolkit and another evidence-based way of supporting students. A student is cognitively closer to their peer group than faculty and they can help break down complex topics or get to where someone is struggling.  A student who has struggled a little bit can be one of the best people to help another student get over whatever hurdles they’re experiencing.

Q: With Step 1 going pass/fail, how has the advising model changed?

BH: We used to offer a predictive model that provides students an anticipated three-digit score range based on their individual metrics. Now Step 1 is pass/fail we revised the model to focus on a range that will guide them in preparation strategy and give them an idea of their risk of not passing. Those students in our group where the data indicate students in prior years may have struggled will be offered special programming on test-taking and preparation strategies and will have tutor support.

Q: How does the Academic Success team collaborate with the Careers in Medicine program?

BH: We take a team approach to advising students. Academic Success advises on factors related to the length of blocked preparation time they may need for Step 2. Dr. Peterson advises students on assessing career competitiveness, schedule development, and the residency application and match processes. Often we collaborate on seminars for our students because when students think about Step 2 scheduling, many of their questions relate to career plans.