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How can I teach students who know more than me?

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Sam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores how teachers of English for Medicine can use role-play to enable learning in the classroom.

Teaching English for Medical Purposes (EMP) to a class of trained or student doctors can be a daunting prospect.

They have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body, whereas most of us who teach English for Medicine – probably don’t. And that gap between our knowledge and theirs can lead to a bit of self doubt as we prepare to step into the classroom.

In my experience, there are two things to remember in situations such as this. The first is to remember your role in the classroom. You aren’t supposed to be the expert in medicine – you’re the expert in teaching communication skills. Reminding yourself of this will help you to keep focused on what you’re doing and, just as importantly, it’ll help you to keep calm if you feel anxious or daunted.

Second, remember to use your students! It might seem strange to think of your students as a teaching resource, but it makes perfect sense. If you can turn their knowledge into your asset, lessons will become easier to teach and, hopefully, more rewarding for your students. Here’s how.

Teaching communication skills in EMP is essentially about facilitating learning so that your students can develop flexibility and confidence. If you can create realistic situations where your students actively use their medical knowledge, you will give them very real skills practice for their place of work. One way to achieve this is through role-play exercises.

Role-plays give students the freedom to use their specialist knowledge, which is always good for building their confidence. At the same time, you get to learn from your students; they supply the specialist information, and that takes a little bit of pressure off you. The key to good role-plays is organization – as long you understand what skills your students need, and can organize and control the activities to that effect, you are doing your job.

Communication in medicine lends itself well to role-play activities. In fact, the possibilities are almost endless, as even the most basic role-play can be tweaked to be as complex as you like.

Consider, for example, taking a medical history from a patient. You can create a lesson using just one word – such as headache– and the students’ knowledge. Ask them to create a brief case presentation: a 25-year-old patient presents with a (tension) headache. Students can take turns taking the history from the patient. Give each of them five minutes to take the history, allow two to three minutes for feedback, then follow it up with whole class feedback.

A role-play such as this is made more challenging by asking the ‘patient’ to adopt an attitude (aggressive, annoyed or challenging,  for example). Alternatively, students can work in groups of three so the third student acts as a monitor of the ‘doctor’ who checks medical detail. You can refer monitors to particular pages of medical text books too.

Medical case histories also lend themselves to information gap activities. These activities are where the ‘patient’ presents to the doctor with an illness that the doctor does not know about.  To make this type of activity more challenging, you can:

  • restrict the enquiry to different types of headache – tension, migraine, haemorrhage, thunderclap, for example
  • set the activity for a specific field, such as respiratory medicine
  • make it completely open – let students decide on the patient’s problem themselves.

With these tips and ideas in your bag, there’s no need to worry about what you don’t know. Just concentrate on what you’re supposed to, and remember why you’re there – to facilitate the learning process.

As a lay person rather than a medical expert, you as the teacher are the ideal candidate for getting doctors to ‘decode’ medical language in the way they would need to if they were speaking to a patient. Your lack of specialist knowledge can actually be beneficial in the classroom.

So, be open to role-plays, be clear about your objectives for each activity, and don’t forget to use the wealth of knowledge sitting inside your students’ heads. I’m sure they’ll be happy to share it.

What are your experiences of learning from students?

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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4 thoughts on “How can I teach students who know more than me?

  1. This was excellent. Thank you so much. I especially appreciate the idea that students need to learn to decode their profession and simplify their explanations. It’s good for them, not only in English but as professionals in any language (and in any field), to know how to make themselves understood to people who have no idea what they do or how they do it. We do them no favors by playing along, by pretending we understand, by letting them keep things complicated or unclear. And when we apply this to beginners, we need to insist that they’re clear, confident and ready even for simple pronouncements with the present tense of the verb “to be”. Lovely article.

  2. I totally agree – and it pays off as a teacher if you know where your strengths and weaknesses lie. There’s no place for arrogance and bluff in the classroom.

    Like many I’ve taught ESP classes (in one memorable case it was to a gum disease specialist which wasn’t the most pleasant class I’ve ever done!) but I always went in with the attitude that although I knew better English than my students, they knew far more than me about their specialist subject and so… well I got them to “teach” me.

  3. Haha! Gum disease specialist… man. I taught Brazil’s top Elvis impersonator for a few years. I’m not quite sure what was being taught there but I had a lot of fun!

  4. I also have to teach students in medicine in my teaching context. I also must say that if we teach students do not learn. Thus, as the author suggests it is good to make students the resource and teach you. However, more importantly, we have to remember that we are supposed to create situation in which they can learn and that is our most important job. In other words, not to give information but create a classroom atmosphere in which they can discover or experience on their own. Also, I have encountered many doctors in Japan who try to speak to me in English I have never heard of, so perhaps we do need to be teaching them the basics anyway.

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