University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Adapting Medical School Curriculum to Millennial and Generation Z Learners

Sarina Schrager, MD, MS, WMJ Editor-in-Chief

WMJ. 2021;120(1):6.

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The millennial generation—people born in the early 1980s to 1996—makes up a majority of today’s medical students. These young people have grown up with the internet and an almost continuous source of information. They are more diverse, socially responsible, and virtually connected than any generation before them. Millennials also have different learning styles than students in previous generations. Many have shorter attention spans, are used to instant gratification, and want learning to be connected to technology. As such, teaching millennial learners has to adapt to their strengths. Optimal education for millennial learners packages information into bite-sized pieces and provides interactive, experiential, and collaborative learning. The 5 R’s of optimal education for millennial learners provides a framework to adapt existing curriculum (See Box in full text pdf).1

Generation Z learners (born 1997-2012) are beginning to matriculate in medical school, and they, too, have a penchant for interactive learning, heavy on technology.

Traditional medical school curriculum is full of didactic lectures designed to transfer massive amounts of material from the instructors to the students. The instructor usually creates a Powerpoint presentation with large numbers of slides covering a topic in the basic or clinical sciences. Previous generations of medical students have learned this way, studied the material, and taken tests. And while this learning method worked well for Baby Boomers and Generation X students, it does not match the learning styles of either Millennial or Generation Z learners. Learners from these younger groups want alternative methods of information delivery, in addition to traditional lectures. So, the instructor can add videos or supplemental online content to their slides. Use of cases and clear examples of how the material connects with the outside world is effective. Young learners want the material to be relevant to their lives and the world. So, a lecture on the Krebs cycle should have some clinical application or an example of how the knowledge can be used in a practical way. A focus on milestones and competency-based assessment methods may be an optimal adaptation for medical school curricula.2 Millennials have grown up receiving almost continuous feedback; they want direct, frequent feedback from their teachers, and assessment of competencies is a good way of providing feedback.

Mentors for Millennial and Generation Z residents also must adapt to their needs.3 Mentorship will be most successful if it is done in a flexible way. Instead of scheduling appointments, many millennial residents and fellows desire access to their mentors in a much more relaxed and fluid manner. They also look to peers and other team members for mentoring.

A paper in this issue of the WMJ4 describes a study where the researchers surveyed both medical students and faculty to assess how each group perceived how much of the curriculum was lecture only and how much was delivered via alternative methods (like online content or virtual lecture). Interestingly, the faculty felt that they were using alternative methods of information delivery much more than did the students. The students were frequently looking for supplemental information online, which the faculty did not know about. This mismatch in experience underscores the difficulty in teaching transgenerationally.

Another paper in this issue looked at a peer-mentoring program at The Medical College of Wisconsin,5 where medical students were paired with undergraduate students at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. This small study evaluated the experience of both groups and suggested positive outcomes. It is a model that deserves further exploration.

Among the variety of other papers in this issue, we are proud to publish a paper by Darold Treffert, MD, and Hunter Ries on the “sudden savant.”6 Dr Treffert, who was a former member of the WMJ Editorial Board and died this past December, was an internationally respected researcher in autism, hyperlexia, and savant syndrome who has published widely, including other papers and commentaries in the WMJ. (See accompanying essay by John J. Frey, III, MD.7) He leaves behind a remarkable legacy and will be missed.

  1. Laskaris J. How to Engage Millennials: 5 Important Moves. Efront learning. Accessed March 10, 2021.
  2. Desy JR, Reed DA, Wolanskyj AP. Milestones and millennials: a perfect pairing—competency based medical education and the learning preferences of Generation Y. Mayo Clin Proc. 2017;92(2):243-250. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.10.026
  3. Waljee JF, Chopra V, Saint S. Mentoring millennials. JAMA. 2020;323(17):1716-1717. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3085
  4. Graff CJ; Kaljo K, Treat RW, Dielentheis K. The adaptive learner: how faculty and medical students’ perceptions of learning needs and desires differ. WMJ. 2020;120(1):8-16.
    Thompson Rodriguez K, Ponkratz K, Gallagher M, Treat R, St. Clair N, Chou E, Lauck SM. Establishment and retrospective analysis of a pilot peer mentorship program. WMJ. 2020;120(1):17-22.
  5. Treffert D, Ries H. The Sudden Savant: A new form of extraordinary abilities. WMJ. 2020;120(1):69-73.
  6. Frey J. A tribute to Darold Treffert, MD. WMJ. 2020;120(1):7.
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