Resident Didactic Training – How Do You Learn Best?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I need from my residency training to become a competent pathologist when I graduate and how I learn best. I’ve never been a good audio learner so I don’t learn as much from a purely lecture-based education. And truth be told, I often skipped classes during medical school but wasn’t reprimanded probably because I did fine in my classes. It’s taken me years to realize but I learn best by making connections. Maybe it’s the scientist in me but I remember more, and can figure out the concept again if I forget it, if I understand mechanisms than by rote memorization. So for me, what I need most is time that often is not afforded in a live lecture. I often prefer to watch video recordings on pathology topics because I can stop the recording and think (or jot down a note or two). The “flipped classroom” concept works better for someone like me.

And so, this brings me to resident education. Unlike other specialties, we spend a lot of time on didactics. But there are many different permutations to how programs accomplish this objective. At my program, we have a lot of live lectures or multi-scope sessions. I faithfully try to attend (especially since we have a 90% attendance policy), but most of my attendings know that this is not how I learn best. Anything I have to learn by hearing on the spot has never been my strength.

But, I’ve found two methods at my program that do fit my learning style. First, we have a whole slide scanner. It’s great because we are allowed to scan slides to build our own virtual slide sets for repetitive study later if we so choose. Also, our surgical pathology director has given much of her time to annotating slides for us to use for “unknowns.” She can even compile data such as tracking how long it takes us to find an important required feature on the slide as well as our movements on the slide. She can also compare our scores from year to year if we use the same slide set (which we found didn’t significantly increase our knowledge if tested on the same subject the following year so we’re no longer required to do so).

With digital slides, I like having the option to go back and look over the slides as many times as I need. I didn’t realize how fortunate we were to have a slide scanner at our disposal until I presented some of this data at USCAP during my first year – many residents and attendings that stopped by my poster told me that they didn’t have access to digital slides or a slide scanner at their institutions. But looking at whole slide imaging (WSI) is a skill we all need to master since up to 2/3 of our AP boards can be digital (not glass) slides so I’m glad that I’m exposed to it early and throughout my training.

The second method that I found that really helps me to learn surgical pathology is the unknowns conference conducted at one of our four hospitals. We’re given four slides (which is the perfect number to cover in up to an hour) a couple of days in advance and the residents work together to come up with a differential and diagnosis. Since our attending always gives us papers on the diagnoses, we often read articles while we are working up the differential – which for someone who is used to reading journal articles and reviews, is right down my alley! We take turns during the conference driving at the scope and describe what we see at low then high power and then we give our differential and begin to narrow it down.

After each slide, our attending will reveal the correct diagnosis, point out salient morphologic features (especially with mimickers that can confuse us), and ask us about appropriate ancillary tests and expected results before giving us articles to read on the diagnosis. I’ve found that the interactive approach really helps but more so than that is the visual learning (ie – reading books and articles, googling on the internet) that I did to prepare for this conference. More important than getting the right diagnosis by “wallpapering” (ie – matching up a picture with the slide to reach a diagnosis) is the thought process to narrow down the differential.

And lastly, this is not specific to my program, but I am a strong supporter of open sourcing and sharing of free online didactics. I’ve often found great videos from other programs online or on YouTube to supplement my learning. So how do you learn best? Does your program provide all the tools that you need?



Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a second year resident physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System in Chicago, IL.

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