Defining and Describing Medical Learning Communities: Results of a National Survey

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To investigate what is meant by learning community in medical education and to identify the most important features of current medical education learning communities.


After a literature review, the authors surveyed academic deans of all U.S. and Canadian medical schools and colleges (N = 124) to identify those that had implemented a learning community. Those with student learning communities (N = 18) answered a series of questions about the goals, structure, function, benefits, and challenges of their communities.


The most common primary goals included fostering communication among students and faculty; promoting caring, trust, and teamwork; helping students establish academic support networks; and helping students establish social support networks. Most deans said that students remained in the same community for all four years of medical school and that communities were linked to specific faculty and/or peer advisors. For most schools, communities included students from many class years, and participation was mandatory. Curricular purposes included professionalism training, leadership development, and service learning. Almost all schools had social functions related to their communities, and most provided career planning, group mentoring, and personal counseling.


Learning communities in medical education demonstrate diverse approaches to achieving the general goal of enhanced student learning. Medical school leaders considering learning communities should determine the goals they want to accomplish and be open to adopting different approaches based on local needs. Evaluation and effective monitoring of evolution are needed to determine the best approaches for different needs and to assess impact on students and faculty.

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