Building a Support System for Medical Students

It’s not enough to provide great instruction. To get the most out of their education, students need space to rest and process information. This is especially important in medical fields where programs are often intensive. With unique design solutions and an understanding of specialized medical education facilities, architecture can maximize the potential for learning.

The Modern Medical Program

Today, medical programs face many challenges. Accelerating technological advancements, industry shifts towards value-based care, and greater need for interprofessional collaboration all impact medical curricula. Faculty retention and recruitment, along with rising costs of education are also major concerns. But the biggest challenge is creating and updating programs to keep up with rapidly changing student needs.

Students themselves face financial burden, heavy workload, competition, and the challenging leap from classroom to real-world clinical settings. These factors can lead to poor mental health, burnout, and uncertainty that detracts from their education. Medical programs must create learning environments that meet learners’ academic and personal needs.

Experiential Learning_D

Experiential Learning for Medical Students

Compared to lecture- or textbook-based education, hands-on and experiential learning are considered active instruction. They both bridge the gap from theory to practice. Simulation environments, virtual and wet labs, supervised patient care, and other methods bring medical students into the real world. But experiential learning goes beyond hands-on education, centering around a need for reflection.

Kolbs Learning Cycle_DPS

It considers individual learning and development equally with areas of study. In David A. Kolb’s learning cycle, four steps leave space in the learning process to synthesize understanding: experience, reflect, think, and act. Experiential learning widens the context of the work, giving students perspective on how individual actions affect their community1. This is vital to building future generations of thorough, empathic practitioners. It also makes room for students to rest and internalize the vast amount of material to be learned—helping with retention, study-life balance, and wellbeing.

Programs that feature experiential learning are a big draw for students. Thanks to their engaging nature and interpersonal aspects, these types of courses are bringing students back to campuses for in-person learning. They help learners build a community, establishing connections amongst their peers and with professionals in the field—an invaluable asset to students early in their careers.

Over the past 5 years, 92% of DPS medical education work has used experiential learning.

Despite a lack of hard data, experiential learning has become a focus for many academic institutions, especially those with medical programs. It has long been associated with higher retention and better learning outcomes. In a study by Grand Valley State University2, experiential learning was connected to increased graduation rates over a 5 year period. The study saw a 22% lift in the graduation rate of STEM students, over the same period where the university prioritized experiential learning opportunities within academic programs.

Shaping the Learning Environment

As architects, we know that environment plays a big role in supporting students in critical stages of their education. Effective spaces can be created by aligning design with program requirements and pedagogy, like experiential learning. A growing trend of interprofessional medical care can be addressed with building layouts that interconnect areas of study. At the Domenici Center, a shared wing serves multiple programs via specialized labs, simulation spaces, seminar spaces, and lounges for collaboration.

Specialized equipment is crucial in educational and lab spaces. Technical elements can be integrated with building infrastructure to provide easy access. Places for reflecting and thinking are also key to student success. Libraries, lounge areas, and common spaces offer a reprieve from the hands-on and technical nature of medical education. For these programs experiential learning combines with evidence-based design strategies, giving students additional benefits. Abundant windows with views of nature and access to the outdoors allow learners to—literally and figuratively—step away from the work when they need time to process.

Architecture, structural engineering, interior design, and landscape architecture all come together to create a physical support system for students in medical fields. By designing with experiential learning in mind, we create places where students can succeed.

1. Gavillet, R. (2018). Experiential learning and its impact on college students. Texas Education Review, 7(1), 140-149.

2. Plotkowski, P., Joseph, J. (2011). Enhancing Graduation Rates Through High Impact Activities: Experiential Learning, Engagement, Mentoring, and Scholarships, 22.618.6.

Keri Stevenson, Principal, Dekker Perich Sabatini

Keri Stevenson

Design Leader / Principal

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