In this series we find out about our people’s passion for educating the next generation of healthcare professionals. Find out how the learning process is like DNA replication from Dr Yeo Tianrong, Associate Consultant in National Neuroscience Institute's Department of Neurology. 

What role do you play in medical education?

As a clinician, I do ward rounds, attend to inpatient referrals as well as run outpatient clinics. These are excellent opportunities to teach clinical skills and diagnostic approaches to the junior doctors and medical students. They are usually short, impromptu sessions but I find them very useful as learners remember best through experience.

As clinical practice is now heavily guided by evidence-based medicine, I also try to teach clinical research methods to help junior doctors and medical students understand the articles that they are reading. Nonetheless, the practice of medicine is still very much an art and I try to instill in them the soft skills required for patient care.

My appointments as clinical teacher with both Yong Loo Lin and Lee Kong Chian Schools of Medicine as well as Physician Faculty Member of the Singhealth Neurology Residency Program has allowed me to participate in formal teaching sessions and evaluations, which I very much enjoy being a part of.

Who has inspired you to be an educator, and why?

During the course of my neurology training, I have been inspired by many doctors in the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI): Prof Loong Si Chin, Assoc Prof Umapathi N Thirugnanam, Assoc Prof Nigel Tan and Assoc Prof Kevin Tan, just to name a few.

Although they each use a different teaching method, they are all effective educators who are passionate and generous in imparting their knowledge. Apart from teaching me clinical and research skills, they also taught me how to be an effective teacher, a compassionate doctor and a collegial co-worker.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change to improve teaching and learning?

I wish teachers can receive direct and honest feedback from their students. It is a great way to improve one’s teaching. Being a learner myself, I have noticed how often teachers fail to engage learners. Mostly because the subject matter is not tailored for the learners, making them lose interest.

Constructive feedback allows teachers to self-reflect and understand their strengths and weaknesses. I think this process of introspection is very important. There is no need for a magic wand, just a great deal of humility on the teacher’s part, along with honesty (and perhaps some courage!) on the learner’s end.

How would you teach someone who is unmotivated?

First, I would try to find out the reason why he/she is uninterested. From my experience with unmotivated learners, I find that they are often demoralised by negative academic experiences, such as failing tests and repeating postings.

Then, I would instill confidence in them. I usually ask them to start with simple tasks and provide feedback along the way – but never criticise, or worse, compare them to the stronger learners in the group. Most importantly, I have to show them that I actually care that they learn.

Could you describe your teaching/learning philosophy in an analogy?

I think of the teaching and learning process like a piece of double stranded DNA in replication. In this process, there is a leading strand of DNA, which is copied rapidly without using much energy, and there is also a lagging strand, which requires more energy to replicate bit-by-bit. They both will eventually form a complete new strand of DNA.

This DNA replication process is much akin to how students learn – like the leading strand, there are faster learners who absorb what’s taught quickly. There are also the ‘lagging strands’ – learners who require more time (or a different way) to grasp concepts, but will eventually get there as long as the teacher puts in the effort. It is important to be cognizant of the different learning speeds and styles within a group of students.

Once DNA is replicated, there are bound to be errors in the DNA sequence and there is a need to repair them, or they will persist and result in mutations. As a learner, it is often not possible to completely understand everything at one go – there is always a need to revise, much like the repair mechanism in DNA replication.

In the learning sense, ‘mutations’ lead to persistent misunderstanding, and worse, passing on these mistakes to the next generations of doctors. Of course there are also good ‘mutations’ when a learner adds his/her own useful insights to the ‘DNA sequence’ acquired from the teacher!

What was that one moment that made all the hard work worthwhile?

I have had students tell me that my teachings have helped them figure out complex pathways and I’ve seen junior doctors confidently approach diagnostic problems with the methods that I have taught them.   These encounters are very rewarding. I hope they will keep these skills throughout their careers and pass them on to future generations of doctors.