Purpose: An exploratory study to better understand the “networked” life of the medical school as a learning environment.
Method: In a recent academic year, the authors gathered data during two six-week blocks of a sequential histology and anatomy course at a U.S. medical college. An eight-item questionnaire captured different dimensions of student interactions. The student cohort/network was 48 first-year medical students. Using social network analysis (SNA), the authors focused on (1) the initial structure and the evolution of informal class networks over time, (2) how informal class networks compare to formal in-class small-group assignments in influencing student information gathering, and (3) how peer assignment of professionalism role model status is shaped more by informal than formal ties. In examining these latter two issues, the authors explored not only how formal group assignment persisted over time but also how it functioned to prevent the tendency for groupings based on gender or ethnicity.
Results: The study revealed an evolving dynamic between the formal small-group learning structure of the course blocks and the emergence of informal student networks. For example, whereas formal group membership did influence in-class questions and did prevent formation of groups of like gender and ethnicity, outside-class questions and professionalism were influenced more by informal group ties where gender and, to a much lesser extent, ethnicity influence student information gathering.
Conclusions: The richness of these preliminary findings suggests that SNA may be a useful tool in examining an array of medical student learning encounters.