Mentoring Students at a Distance
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
How do you mentor students and track their progress from hundreds of miles away? Every summer, the Department of Family Medicine faces this challenge while mentoring students participating in their Independent Investigative Inquiry (III-3), a program which fulfills an independent study requirement. Most students complete their independent study in conjunction with the Rural Underserved Opportunities Program (R/UOP) and the International Health Opportunity Program (IHOP).
R/UOP provides medical students with the opportunity to spend four weeks working side-by-side with physicians in rural or urban underserved communities throughout Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho in the summer after their first year. IHOP students spend ten weeks on site learning to practice medicine in areas with fewer resources. Students participating in the III-3 often work in remote locations where they are isolated from their faculty mentors and fellow students.
To help them learn from their experiences, all III-3 students are tasked with keeping a journal, in addition to a larger project of identifying and researching a local health problem, and then devising and implementing a solution. Prior to 2007, students in the field used an application developed by a program coordinator to collate and submit some of the student assignments to their Seattle-based faculty mentors. The students also submitted assignments via email. Even with participation limited to just 40 students, the faculty had what Corinne Corrigan, Teaching Associate, describes as "data tracking insanity," organizing, tracking, and responding to 14 assignments for each student. They were untimately unable to maintain the application. In some instances, faculty mentors were not able to provide students with feedback on their work or experiences until they returned to Seattle and submitted hard copies of the materials.
Determined to provide a more proactive mentoring experience for their students, the Department of Family Medicine decided they needed a better way for mentors to interact with student work. Their timing was ideal: they needed a new tool, and the Catalyst team needed faculty input as they updated an assignment collection tool. Family Medicine faculty and staff participated in user research and usability studies, and Catalyst developed Collect It, a new tool that creates file dropboxes and allows instructors to collect and return work, and provide feedback for each assignment.
In Summer 2007, for the first time ever, Family Medicine was able to accommodate all interested students in the School of Medicine III-3 program. Ninety-three students were placed in rural or urban-underserved communities throughout the five-state (WWAMI) region. There they learned about the challenges and rewards of providing health care to these communities. They also developed and implemented public health projects arising from the students' assessment of community needs. In addition, six students followed a similar curriculum in the international setting and completed public health projects in Africa, India, and Peru through the IHOP Program.
Five faculty mentors shared the responsibility of tracking all of the students' work over the course of the summer from the Seattle campus. The mentors set up a single Collect It dropbox that the students used to turn in their assignments and communicate with their mentors. The dropbox enables faculty to view just the work of the group of students they are following. By sharing a dropbox, the mentors found they are able to learn from each other’s feedback, read and then discuss issues that arise, and cover for each other during absences. Corrigan is pleased to be able to see at a glance how all students are progressing through the program and track her responses to student work. She also feels that the interactions between mentors and students have greatly improved, resulting in a more positive learning experience for everyone.By Laura Baldwin, January 2008