New honor could mean stress for med school students

First and second-year students now compete to be in the top 15% of class.

Kathryn Elliott

A new honors designation is giving first- and second-year Medical School students a new incentive to work hard, but could also lead to more stress.

Before this fall, the first two years of classes at the University of Minnesota Medical School were graded entirely on a pass-fail basis. But now, professors can credit students in the top 15 percent of a course with an honors title. This provides residency programs with a way to differentiate between applicants.

The change only affects the Twin Cities campus, as the Duluth campus has offered course honors for years. But medical professionals and students wonder if the change will foster competition instead of collaboration.

The change sends a mixed message from the administration, said Mallory Yelenich-Huss, the second-year class president. Faculty advisers have said itâÄôs more important for students to do well on their board exams at the end of their first two years than achieve high scores in their individual classes. This change shifts the academic emphasis to grades.

The honors designation isnâÄôt a factor for Yelenich-Huss, she said. âÄúIâÄôve been working my hardest as it is,âÄù she said. âÄúI donâÄôt really care to compare me to the rest of the class.âÄù

The Medical School will closely monitor classes under the new grading policy to make sure their cohesiveness isnâÄôt damaged, said Kathleen Watson, the schoolâÄôs associate dean for students and student learning.

She said that according to research, schools with honors systems showed more stress among students. But she said faculty advisers at the UniversityâÄôs Medical School regularly talk to students about their well-being and stress levels, not just their performance. The school has resources to help students who feel pressure, she said.

The change came after a student representative brought up the idea in a meeting with faculty. After some discussion, it was forwarded to the Education Steering Committee. The committeeâÄôs decision, in part, was for consistency with the Duluth campus.

As a committee member, James Nixon, vice chair for education in the Department of Medicine, said that without individual course honors, medical studentsâÄô performances come down to the single test at the end of the first two years: part one of the United States Medical Licensing Exam. Measuring studentsâÄô progress throughout the two years ensures that theyâÄôll get rewarded even if they have a bad day when taking the test, he said.

Whether students realize it or not, their course exam scores already factor into their admission to Alpha Omega Alpha, the honors society for medical students. Now, their progress will be more transparent, Nixon said.

Some upperclassmen in the Medical School are concerned about the grading policy, said Phillip Radke, medical school student council president.

âÄúItâÄôs a tough road, and the extra amount of stress can be hard on people,âÄù he said. âÄúWill all those honors make a huge difference? Maybe, maybe not.âÄù

A handful of students from the second-year class responded to an email survey by Yelenich-Huss about the change this week. Some felt it was a fair reward for excellence. Others said it could raise the bar too high for first-semester, first-year students, who are just starting to adjust to the rigors of medical school.

Yelenich-Huss said that even with the pass-fail system, she started to burn out in her first year, studying all day, every day. Soon, she said, she reassessed her priorities and started spending more time with friends. Personally, she feels that adding honors to that mix would have been âÄúunhealthyâÄù for her.

âÄúI would have felt like I had to strive to achieve that,âÄù she said.