Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Student approaches for learning in medicine: What does it tell us about the informal curriculum?

Jianzhen Zhang1*, Raymond F Peterson2 and Ieva Z Ozolins3

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Medical Education Research and Scholarship, School of Medicine, The University of Queensland, 288 Herston Road, Herston QLD 4006 Australia

2 Faculty of Health Sciences. The University of Adelaide, 5005 Australia

3 Faculty of Health, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove, QLD 4059 Australia

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BMC Medical Education 2011, 11:87  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-11-87

Published: 21 October 2011



It has long been acknowledged that medical students frequently focus their learning on that which will enable them to pass examinations, and that they use a range of study approaches and resources in preparing for their examinations. A recent qualitative study identified that in addition to the formal curriculum, students are using a range of resources and study strategies which could be attributed to the informal curriculum. What is not clearly established is the extent to which these informal learning resources and strategies are utilized by medical students. The aim of this study was to establish the extent to which students in a graduate-entry medical program use various learning approaches to assist their learning and preparation for examinations, apart from those resources offered as part of the formal curriculum.


A validated survey instrument was administered to 522 medical students. Factor analysis and internal consistence, descriptive analysis and comparisons with demographic variables were completed. The factor analysis identified eight scales with acceptable levels of internal consistency with an alpha coefficient between 0.72 and 0.96.


Nearly 80% of the students reported that they were overwhelmed by the amount of work that was perceived necessary to complete the formal curriculum, with 74.3% believing that the informal learning approaches helped them pass the examinations. 61.3% believed that they prepared them to be good doctors. A variety of informal learning activities utilized by students included using past student notes (85.8%) and PBL tutor guides (62.7%), and being part of self-organised study groups (62.6%), and peer-led tutorials (60.2%). Almost all students accessed the formal school resources for at least 10% of their study time. Students in the first year of the program were more likely to rely on the formal curriculum resources compared to those of Year 2 (p = 0.008).


Curriculum planners should examine the level of use of informal learning activities in their schools, and investigate whether this is to enhance student progress, a result of perceived weakness in the delivery and effectiveness of formal resources, or to overcome anxiety about the volume of work expected by medical programs.