Tips for Resident Doctors Teaching Medical Students

June 12, 2023
As a resident, you have a unique opportunity to shape the future of medicine by teaching medical students. Not only is it a chance to pass on your knowledge, but it also allows you to refine your own skills as a clinician. As the saying goes, “SODOTO: See one, do one, teach one.”
If you are a resident at an academic institution, then I’m willing to bet that at some point in your training, you will work with medical students. Not only will you have to lead and orient them to your team, but you will also likely have to provide teaching as well as evaluative feedback. I currently precept medical students weekly and have been on both the giving and receiving end of teaching and evaluation. 
While teaching can be a great opportunity, the role of an educator can also be a difficult one, especially if you’ve never taught before. In this blog post, we’ll explore some tips for teaching medical students. For ease of exposition, I’ve divided our discussion into three sections: how to interact with students, some general teaching guidelines, and how to issue feedback.

Interacting With Medical Students as a Resident

Before we begin, it’s important to remember that these medical students are in various stages of their training. You may have an MS2 rotating with you one week and then an MS4 the next. Knowledge and skill base will differ drastically among them, sometimes there are stark differences even if students are the same year! Students may not have the same level of knowledge and experience as you, but they are eager to learn. As a resident, you can help them develop their skills and gain confidence in their abilities. 

To help them succeed, though, you’ll have to be on top of your game as a teacher. And an important part of that comes down to people skills, so we’ll begin with a couple of tips on how to interact with medical students.

Treat Others With Respect

First things first: learn and use names. I’m not joking! Everyone has a name and deserves to be treated with enough respect that you use their name rather than just referring to them as “the student.” Ask about pronunciation if you are unsure, and don’t shy away from asking for their name a second or third time if you’ve forgotten. Asking more than that might be a little embarrassing, so just write it down if you are bad with names.

Furthermore, the way that you communicate with your medical team will demonstrate respectful interactions to your medical students looking up to you for guidance. Asking how people prefer to be identified should extend past your students and into the way you interact with colleagues, too—for example, some nurses may prefer not to be called by their first name, while the lab tech may be friendly and appreciate you calling him by his nickname. Avoid making assumptions about someone’s clinical role based on their gender. Finally, be polite by saying please and thank you—people like to be appreciated!

Demonstrate Clear and Effective Communication

Communication with colleagues and students alike should be a two-way street by using language that is effective, nonjudgmental, and easy to understand. This will help to make you approachable so students and colleagues alike can come to you with questions or concerns. Furthermore, it helps to foster relationships and friendships that make your daily interactions more pleasant.

Clear communication is fast, effective, and has a positive impact on patient care as well by reducing medical errors and improving patient understanding and trust in their healthcare professionals. This sort of communication also helps build professionalism in yourself and your students.

Follow those tips, and you’ll have better interactions with your students that will lay a good foundation for becoming an effective teacher. But there’s a lot more to it!

7 Teaching Tips for Residents Working with Medical Students

Now, let’s talk about seven things that are important to learn about teaching in general:

1. Define the Basics 

Medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology are the foundation of medicine. Don’t assume that medical students know everything they need to know. Take the time to review the basics, so they have a strong understanding of the fundamental concepts. This will help students understand the material better and reduce the risk of confusion.

2. Be Patient 

Medical students are still learning, and they make mistakes. Instead of criticizing them, provide constructive feedback and encourage them to keep learning. Remember that you were once in their shoes.

3. Teach by Example 

One of the most effective ways to teach is by demonstrating how to do something. If you’re teaching a procedure, explain the steps as you go along. This will help medical students understand the rationale behind each action. Remember, teaching does not have to take extra time. It can be as simple as thinking out loud as you place an order or write a note, or talking through the steps of a procedure. 

4. Set Expectations From the Beginning

Explain your expectations for medical students based on objective standards and AAMC core competencies that are appropriate to the student’s level, and not personal beliefs or opinions. Set clear expectations regarding professionalism (i.e., when to arrive, dress code, etc.), seeing patients, writing notes, presenting to the team, and researching difficult cases. 

You can set expectations about the quality of work you expect by asking them specific questions about cases, such as “What do you think is causing this patient’s anemia?” or “What findings on the exam or from the patient’s labs make you lean towards this diagnosis?” These kinds of questions illustrate the level of engagement you expect from them during the rotation.

Additionally, expectations are a two-way street. Remember to listen to the student’s concerns and hear their expectations for the rotation. It’s a good idea to sit down with the student briefly at the beginning and ask if they have particular learning goals for their time with you.

5. Encourage Questions 

Medical students may hesitate to ask questions, but it’s important to create an environment where they feel comfortable doing so. Encourage them to ask questions and be prepared to answer them. Help this along by being approachable and creating a supportive learning environment. Encourage questions, provide feedback, and create a safe space for students to make mistakes and learn from them.

6. Use Real Examples and Cases You’ve Seen Together 

Using real-life examples is an effective way to engage students and help them understand the material better. Share case studies or patient scenarios to illustrate key concepts. If you worked on a case together, you’ll have a common frame of reference with the student that’ll make communicating about it easier and learning more likely to take place. 

7. Encourage Self-Directed Learning 

Encourage medical students to engage in self-directed learning. Provide them with resources and encourage them to explore topics on their own. This will help them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Consider using the AAMC core competencies for medical students to guide you along your teaching pathway. 

One example of a teachable moment between a resident and a medical student might involve discussing the management of a patient with a complex medical history. The medical student may have difficulty understanding how to approach the patient’s care, and the resident can use this opportunity to teach the student about the importance of taking the initiative by doing a thorough medical history, reviewing the patient’s medications, and considering potential drug interactions.

Additionally, the resident might use this opportunity to discuss the importance of interdisciplinary care and collaborating with other healthcare professionals, such as pharmacists, social workers, and physical therapists. By using this real-life example, the resident can help the medical student understand the importance of exploring all aspects of a patient’s care and working collaboratively with others.

How Residents Should Give Medical Students Feedback 

Now that we’ve covered how to interact with and teach medical students, there is one more thing we need to cover: how to give your students feedback.

To be an effective teacher, you must know how to give good feedback. There are two kinds of feedback: formative and summative. Formative feedback is given in real-time, which allows the student to make changes before the end of the rotation. Summative feedback, as the name suggests, is given at the end of the rotation as a final assessment of performance, which is often accompanied by a grade or standardized evaluation. 

9 Criteria for Providing Feedback to Medical Students

Here’s a list of nine criteria that characterizes good feedback. Some of these may apply to one type more than the other, but regardless, helpful feedback tends to be:

1. Done Privately 

Make sure you are seated in a private, quiet environment, with at least some amount of uninterrupted time. You don’t want to embarrass the student by giving them feedback in front of other people. 

2. Open to Student Input

Start by asking the student for their own self-assessment. They may already be aware of the issues you were going to raise.

3. Objective

Understand what objective standards the learner is measured against. Avoid giving a subjective evaluation based on your personal impressions, as this may confuse the situation and possibly build resentment.

4. Timely

Give formative feedback throughout the rotation (on a daily or weekly basis), as soon as it is relevant. Don’t wait too long to provide a student with important information about their performance.

5. Specific 

Give specific examples and avoid generalizations—being vague will not foster learning. The student has to know what you are talking about in order for learning to take place. 

6. Appropriate in Amount 

Don’t overwhelm students with a large amount of feedback at once. This is another reason to provide more frequent formative feedback!

7. Constructive

Normalize making mistakes and growing from them—after all, this is how learning works. Offer specific recommendations for improvement. Never be critical for the sake of being critical.

8. Actionable 

Focus on modifiable behaviors, not personality. The student cannot change who they are, but they can change elements of their performance or behavior that are problematic. 

9. Positive 

Always acknowledge strengths, and aim for positives to outweigh negatives. Be sure to compliment a student when they have done something well, as this will create an enthusiasm for learning that benefits everyone. 

Finally, keep in mind that as a resident teacher, you will likely receive feedback as well. Don’t be afraid to use it to improve. All of us can get better, residents included! 


As a resident, teaching is an important part of your job. Follow these tips on how to interact with students, how to be a better teacher in general, and how to give good feedback and you will excel as a resident educator. As a good teacher, you will help medical students develop the skills and knowledge they need to become competent and compassionate physicians. And in doing so, you will have a real impact on the future of medicine.

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By Mike Ren, MD

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