A “big data” approach that analyzed the factors beyond grade point average (GPA) that contribute to academic success in medical school could be used to customize the medical school curriculum for more successful student training.
Conducted by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and published online January 15 in PLOS One, the new work suggests that such an approach could be used to individualize medical school education, as well as in other fields, such as law and business.
“Our study shows that there are different paths to success, which might be helpful in thinking about personalized education in the way we think about personalized medicine,” says study senior author Itai Yanai, MD, director of NYU Langone Health’s Institute for Computational Medicine and professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at NYU Langone. “The current medical school curriculum takes a one-size-fits-all approach. What we see from our study is that there are differences among groups of students, and perhaps we can use those differences to tailor the curriculum and improve education and training.”
How the Study Was Conducted
The researchers used a machine learning technique called K-means clustering to analyze 53 “features” of 1,088 students accepted to NYU Grossman School of Medicine from 2006 to 2014. These features included grades in math and science courses as well as undergraduate research and leadership experience and whether the college was ranked in the top 25 by U.S. News & World Report.
Based on the clustering analysis, students fell into one of four categories the researchers called signatures. What most distinguished the groups was the undergraduate GPAs of the applicants and whether or not they improved throughout their studies. “Risers” had a high GPA that improved from year to year, while “solids” had a high GPA that was maintained over four years of college. “Improvers” had a lower GPA that improved during their undergraduate career. “Statics” maintained a lower GPA over all four years of college.
To generate a quantitative measure of success in medical school, the researchers used data on clerkship honors, admission to the Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) honor society, scores on the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), and exams taken after third-year clerkships for 946 medical students.
Study findings demonstrate that students classified as risers were overall significantly more successful than solids. A higher percentage of risers was inducted into AOA, and they received better clerkship honors and earned higher scores on the USMLE compared to solids. In other words, risers continued to rise. While the increasing trend in GPA is something admissions officers have known to be important as a predictor for success in medical school, the study results confirmed it with the clustering analysis.
“One would think that a high GPA is a high GPA, and it shouldn’t matter whether you improve to reach the high GPA or you always had a high GPA,” Dr. Yanai says. “While the ‘risers’ result makes intuitive sense, what is novel is that we can now actually quantitatively support the notion that a person who has shown a record of improvement will continue to improve.”
Dr. Yanai says the findings may herald a new kind of approach that should be replicated in other medical schools, as well as in law and business schools, to see if the same principle applies.
The findings also suggest that educators should approach medical school training similarly to how doctors treat patients, by taking a student’s history into consideration.
“In the medical sciences, we know that we can’t treat every patient the same, so we look at their history,” Dr. Yanai says. “In the same way, we can look at the history of the students and use these new computational, data-driven approaches to learn about them and make better decisions about their education. Hopefully, that will lead eventually to better doctors.”
The authors also conclude that rising GPA may be related to those Holy Grail measures of tenacity, grit, and resilience. “We know there are students who may have had a challenging time starting off at college for a variety of reasons, and yet they continue that trajectory of overcoming obstacles and succeeding throughout their lives,” says study author Rafael Rivera, MD, MBA, the associate dean for admissions and financial aid at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology. “It’s reflective of the challenges they’ve faced and overcome, and how it has influenced their work ethic, their drive, and their will to succeed.”
Along with Dr. Yanai, other authors from NYU Grossman School of Medicine are Tal Baron, Robert I. Grossman, MD, Steven Abramson, MD, Martin V. Pusic, MD, Rafael Rivera, MD, MBA, and Marc M. Triola, MD.