The Learning Environment Counts: Longitudinal Qualitative Analysis of Study Strategies Adopted by First-Year Medical Students in a Competency-Based Educational Program

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The move toward competency-based education will require medical schools and postgraduate training programs to restructure learning environments to motivate trainees to take personal ownership for learning. This qualitative study explores how medical students select and implement study strategies while enrolled in a unique, nontraditional program that emphasizes reflection on performance and competence rather than relying on high-stakes examinations or grades to motivate students to learn and excel.


Fourteen first-year medical students volunteered to participate in three, 45-minute interviews (42 overall) scheduled three months apart during 2013–2014. Two medical educators used structured interview guides to solicit students’ previous assessment experiences, preferred learning strategies, and performance monitoring processes. Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Participants confirmed accuracy of transcripts. Researchers independently read transcripts and met regularly to discuss transcripts and judge when themes achieved saturation.


Medical students can adopt an assessment for learning mind-set with faculty guidance and implement appropriate study strategies for mastery-learning demands. Though students developed new strategies at different rates during the year, they all eventually identified study and performance monitoring strategies to meet learning needs. Students who had diverse learning experiences in college embraced mastery-based study strategies sooner than peers after recognizing that the learning environment did not reward performance-based strategies.


Medical students can take ownership for their learning and implement specific strategies to regulate behavior when learning environments contain building blocks emphasized in self-determination theory. Findings should generalize to educational programs seeking strategies to design learning environments that promote self-regulated learning.

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