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A prospective randomized trial of content expertise versus process expertise in small group teaching

Adam D Peets16*, Lara Cooke2, Bruce Wright3, Sylvain Coderre4 and Kevin McLaughlin5

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Critical Care Medicine, Centre for Health Education Scholarship and Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

2 Department of Clinical Neurosciences and Office of Undergraduate Medical Education, Calgary, Canada

3 Department of Family Medicine and Office of Undergraduate Medical Education, Calgary, Canada

4 Division of Gastroenterology and Office of Undergraduate Medical Education, Calgary, Canada

5 Division of Nephrology and Office of Undergraduate Medical Education, Calgary, Canada

6 ADP was a member of the Office of Undergraduate Medical Education at the University of Calgary at the time of this study

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BMC Medical Education 2010, 10:70  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-10-70

Published: 14 October 2010



Effective teaching requires an understanding of both what (content knowledge) and how (process knowledge) to teach. While previous studies involving medical students have compared preceptors with greater or lesser content knowledge, it is unclear whether process expertise can compensate for deficient content expertise. Therefore, the objective of our study was to compare the effect of preceptors with process expertise to those with content expertise on medical students' learning outcomes in a structured small group environment.


One hundred and fifty-one first year medical students were randomized to 11 groups for the small group component of the Cardiovascular-Respiratory course at the University of Calgary. Each group was then block randomized to one of three streams for the entire course: tutoring exclusively by physicians with content expertise (n = 5), tutoring exclusively by physicians with process expertise (n = 3), and tutoring by content experts for 11 sessions and process experts for 10 sessions (n = 3). After each of the 21 small group sessions, students evaluated their preceptors' teaching with a standardized instrument. Students' knowledge acquisition was assessed by an end-of-course multiple choice (EOC-MCQ) examination.


Students rated the process experts significantly higher on each of the instrument's 15 items, including the overall rating. Students' mean score (±SD) on the EOC-MCQ exam was 76.1% (8.1) for groups taught by content experts, 78.2% (7.8) for the combination group and 79.5% (9.2) for process expert groups (p = 0.11). By linear regression student performance was higher if they had been taught by process experts (regression coefficient 2.7 [0.1, 5.4], p < .05), but not content experts (p = .09).


When preceptors are physicians, content expertise is not a prerequisite to teach first year medical students within a structured small group environment; preceptors with process expertise result in at least equivalent, if not superior, student outcomes in this setting.