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Queen Mary Academy

Supporting transition to medical school: the Stepping Stones project

Three young women sitting on a lawn reading books
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Dr Nandini Hayes

Reader in Medical Sciences

Students joining Queen Mary in 2021 have endured two years of educational and social disruption. As such, adapting to university will come with greater challenges than usual. The Stepping Stones project has been designed by the School of Medicine and Dentistry to encourage and support students as they take the next step in their journey.

Responding to a need

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted secondary education, with prolonged school closures and cancelled examinations. Online teaching has varied in quality and quantity, resulting in inequitable delivery of the Year 13 curriculum. Several reports have highlighted the unequal access to online infrastructure, inadequate study space for some students and schools' variable preparedness for online teaching.

In addition, A-level examination results in England will be replaced by teacher-assessed grades, with schools using different methods to assess, mark and moderate. The examination regulator Ofqual has raised concerns about grade inflation, with private, grammar and schools in more affluent areas expected to benefit. Therefore, the actual and perceived educational gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds will widen.

Alongside the direct effect on learning, COVID-19 also has had widespread psychosocial implications, with significant effects on adolescent mental health. Secondary schools and medical schools are seeing increased amount of anxiety, depression, sadness and loneliness among students. 

The combination of these factors is affecting prospective students’ preparedness for university and these disruptions will continue to effect students’ transition to university for many years to come. As yet, there is no comprehensive national data on the long-term effect that this disrupted education has had on different cohorts of students. However, a survey of post-offer holders asking "How would you describe your educational experience since the start of the pandemic?" drew responses including:

  • "Very scary, we are not finishing most of the A-level spec, and so a lot of us are going into uni feeling underprepared and as though our transition to med school will be very hard"
  • "Challenging. Lonely"
  • "Poor, demoralising, sad, unsatisfactory".

The programme

In order to try to mitigate some of this disruption, an interactive online transition programme entitled 'SMD Stepping Stones Summer Programme' was developed to support and enthuse these school leavers before they entered our medical and dental programmes.The front cover of a copy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A four-week book club was organised by Dr Jennifer Randall and facilitated by current students. The reading of ‘The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot promoted discussion, debate, and to allowed students to meet each other and have fun.

Two mini-symposia introduced students to their subjects through the exploration of contemporary issues in order to slowly reintroduce them to an academic mindset. A custom-made study skills programme was designed by Olu Popoola which included interactive sessions on time management and tips on independent studying. The content of this was informed by survey responses to the question "What study skills support would help you prepare for independent study?"

The online Barts Art Galley encouraged students to submit their artwork and over 50 pieces of art were received. In May 2022, these pictures, drawings, photographs, carvings and crocheted animals will be displayed in a physical exhibition.

The aim of this project was to make the transition from school to university less of a jump and more of a manageable next step in the educational journey.

Please get in touch if you'd like to set up a similar programme in your faculty.

Dr Nandini Hayes

Reader in Medical Science

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