I have a reputation among those in my med school class as being something of a slacker. I got this reputation because, around February of last year, I stopped attending lectures entirely.
Now I know what you’re thinking–sure, some freshman might get by with skipping BUN 101 occasionally after the big kegger. But to stop going to lectures entirely in medical school?
Yes, I did. I should explain that each and every lecture we ever had was accompanied by a sizable and usually complete handout. Seldom did the material stray from these handouts, and when it did, it was always easy to get the notes from someone.
I struggled like hell through the first year of school, and very nearly didn’t make it. In fact, I didn’t pass Gross Anatomy–I got a “U”, which is analogous to a “D”, and meant that I had to take a test during the summer to make up the grade.
I had three weeks to do nothing but study for the test. I spent 10-12 hours a day at my desk, reading books, making flash cards, quizzing myself. When the mood struck, I would go over to school and work on the cadavers. When I had questions, I would e-mail the professors or set up an appointment. Not only did I kick the test’s ass, but I genuinely enjoyed those three weeks.
Then we got back to school, and our Micro/Immuno block. Once again, it was four hours of lecture from 8-12 every day, going in one ear and out the other. One day during these lectures I began to think of how much more useful these hours could be if I were at home studying. I began to skip every other day or so. My grades went up somewhat.
Later, in our Path and Pharm block, I realized that the damage to my day was even more significant than that. For one thing, it really wore me out to go to class and try to get something out of it, and I usually didn’t want to spend the rest of the day studying. For another, my “peak study hours” are 10PM-3AM and 10AM-3PM, with sleep in between–an almost impossible schedule to maintain with lecture every day from 8-12. I decided that going to class was the worst thing I could do for my education, so I stopped. My grades shot up once again–my test average went up more than a full letter grade, while the class average stayed about the same.
The surprising thing was the amount of shit that I got from some of my classmates. One actually told me that I just thought of med school as a hobby; just something to do in my spare time. I countered that he thought of it as a obligation–something that he has to spend time doing. I actually think of it as a learning experience, and if lectures are keeping me from learning the science and art of medicine, then I owe it to myself and the many who have some interest in my success to not attend them.
There were three groups of people in my class. There were the Gunners, the 15% or so of the class that wouldn’t ever think of skipping, because they might miss something. I’m not down on them; they appear to actually get something from the lectures, and I envy them. (Note: not all of them are at the top of the class, although they do disproportionately well. I don’t attribute this to their class attendance–I think that their success and class attendance stem from the same internal drive.) Then there are the Obligated, those who attend class but don’t mind skipping every now and then. They don’t go to class because they get anything out of it; they either use the “I’ve paid for this class” logic, or they’re afraid of looking bad to profs and classmates, or they think that attending class is just what you have to do, no questions.
Then there were the very few of us who, as Robert Marion said in his book Learning to Play God, had “the strength of character to transcend the guilt.”
I don’t think that everyone should skip class regularly, but I would never teach a class that required attendance. I would hate to put some self-directed learner like myself through it. If others decide to slack and then fail, they’re learning a lesson that they would have had to learn eventually anyway.
(Yeah, it’s long. I was in surgery all day, and it feels good to sit down and type.)