Sign of the times:

by Sean Madigan

Medical students are constantly at the brink of the latest technological advances. But when it comes to test-taking they still prefer to use the old paper and pencil.
This June, second-year medical students will have to take their board exams administered for the first time via computer.
“We have been going to school for a long time,” said Mike Vollmer, chairman of the Academic Health Center Student Consultative Committee. “We are not used to this type of format. This type of change is definitely going to create some anxiety.”
The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination or “boards” is a nationally administered test for second-year medical students to be taken after completion of their basic sciences education.
Students must pass this cumulative exam before moving on to the next phases of their education — clinical rotation and residency or internship programs.
Nationally, more than 90 percent of second-year students pass the exam on their first try, said Marilyn Becker, the Medical School’s student academic support coordinator. She said the University medical student success rate is even higher.
Becker estimates that 96 to 97 percent of University students pass the test on the first try. If a student fails the exam, she or he can take it a second and even third time if necessary.
The University’s Medical School, like many others around the country, uses a pass/fail grading policy. When students apply for residency programs, board scores can be looked at as evaluation criteria.
Students say the new format will prevent them from using traditional test-taking techniques such as crossing off improbable choices or using highlighters. Proctors will not even allow test takers to bring paper or pencils into the room, Vollmer said.
Becker maintains this year’s test is not much different than in years past.
“It’s almost like they took the paper and pencil questions and stuck them on the computer,” Becker said. In the future, Becker said, the test will morph from multiple choice to a multimedia format with video images and sound clips.
The computer-based testing process doesn’t make second-year medical student Rebecca Sheldon apprehensive.
“I only worry that it’s a new format with fewer questions and no standard for comparisons,” Sheldon said.
To combat students’ test anxieties, in December the Medical School brought a speaker from the National Board of Medical Examiners to the University to explain and answer students’ questions on the new computer-based format.
Although the success rate is very high, Becker said students still feel pressure.
“Traditionally, studies have shown this is the highest stress period for medical school students during their entire undergraduate education,” Becker said.
Students normally start studying for the test in March, Sheldon said. Students can schedule the test whenever they want but most take it in June.
“Most people start studying for more than 10 hours a day the entire month before the test,” Sheldon said.