Medical School Education Wrongly Favours Academic Achievement – Jessica Hamzelou | New Scientist

Medics Who Changed History Would NOT Get Into Modern Medical Schools

Jessica Hamzelou | New Scientist

Many of the people behind the most significant medical discoveries of the past 300 years wouldn’t have got into medical school by today’s standards, BECAUSE THEY EITHER STUDIED THE “WRONG” SUBJECTS, GOT LOW GRADES OR DIDN’T FOLLOW THE RULES.

The finding highlights how the education system wrongly favours academic achievement over other important traits, like persistence and creativity, says David Jenkins at the University of Toronto, Canada. “We have to be much more flexible in how we accept young people into medical school or any other profession or activity that is their goal,” says Jenkins.         

Jenkins’s research was born out of his own frustration with being penalised because he “couldn’t read very quickly”. He has since noticed how would-be medical students spend hours memorising passages from physics textbooks that they will never use in clinical practice.

To find out if this academic focus might rule out potential students who might otherwise be destined for greatness, Jenkins and his colleagues looked at the early academic achievements of 100 people considered to be among the greatest innovators in medicine.


The list of innovators included Edward Jenner, who discovered the world’s first vaccine – for smallpox, which has since been eradicated worldwide. Frederick Banting was another example, who conducted Nobel prizewinning research on the role that insulin can play in treating diabetes.

Specifically, the team looked at which subjects the innovators had studied at school, and their grades, as well as the comments of their teachers, and whether they had ever failed or been expelled.

“We assume all great medical innovators would certainly be accepted to medical school,” says Jenkins. But his team found that, by today’s standards, only 24 per cent would meet entry requirements. 

“ALMOST A QUARTER OF THEM WOULD NOT BE ACCEPTED TO MEDICAL SCHOOL TODAY,” says Jenkins. The remaining innovators fell into a grey area, and would not be guaranteed a place, either. “They didn’t have the right subjects, they were not good students and they had other misdemeanours,” says Jenkins. Banting, for example, only began studying medicine after a failed attempt at a divinity degree – an experience that would almost certainly rule someone ineligible to enter medical school today.

Educators need to find better ways of assessing student achievement, says Jenkins. “I think we’re missing out on a lot of people who might have diverse ideas and come up with different solutions,” he says. Rather than focusing on subjects and grades, assessors should consider how students perform in project work, he suggests. 

Jacqueline Stevenson at the University of Leeds, UK, agrees that the way young people are assessed at school could be improved. “We have an educational system in most countries that assumes that the development of things like innovation and academic ability is a linear process,” she says. “[But] it’s not easy to predict what someone will be in the future just by looking at [exam results].”

However, she cautions that if students were to be assessed on extracurricular activities and projects, it is vital to first ensure that these projects are accessible to all students, regardless of their background.

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  • William  On 07/07/2020 at 8:17 am

    Very true.

  • wally n  On 07/08/2020 at 9:55 am

    Very dangerous Territory….today is a world of “cut and paste” even Guyana has some guy wanting to be President/Prime Minister with shady qualifications (allegedly)
    I really don’t want half ass doctors or half ass anything, send them through the grinder, this appears as Liberal backdoor, to short circuit the system.
    Guyanese, throughout the years, were successful in all disciplines, I don’t like where this is heading.

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