Intended for healthcare professionals

BMJ: 329 (7474)

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 04 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1055

Can our students learn from our mistakes?

I greatly enjoyed reading the "My Greatest Mistake" section, and
appreciate the BMJ for giving its readers the opportunity to contribute.
Mistakes happen in research too, probably as much as they happen in the
clinical setting. The BMJ should consider a similar series on "My Greatest
Research Blunders." Such a series, I believe, can help our students learn
research methodology.

I would like to share my experience in using such an approach in
teaching epidemiology. Introductory epidemiology courses are important
since students are often exposed to a new field for the first time. An
inspiring course can have a lasting, even career defining impact on the
student. But they are a challenge for the teaching assistant who has to
make the subject real and exciting. When I signed up to teach Introductory
Epidemiology (Summer 2001) at the University of California, Berkeley, I
braced myself for this challenge. The course began well. However, within
days, students were questioning the relevance of the material they were
learning. How will statistical methods help us when we do public health
research in the real world? Why is it important to involve the community
before investigating an epidemic? Why is bias in measurement important?
Despite my research and teaching experience in India, I was struggling to
convey the excitement and thrill of real field research – “shoe leather
epidemiology,” as it is called.

It then struck me that one way of expressing the joys and hardships
of field research is to uncover its human side – the pain, sweat,
frustrations, and the satisfaction of conducting research in communities.
I decided to teach a special section - a ‘confession’ session on “all the
mistakes and blunders I have made in my research career.” By doing so, I
hoped to paint a stark yet real picture of health research. Admitting my
mistakes, I thought, was as real and human as it can get. Before putting
this rather wild idea into action, I discussed it with my faculty
instructor. To my surprise, he not only saw the value of such a session,
he agreed to present the major mistakes he had made in his long and
distinguished career. Between us, we had more than 50 years of experience
in making colossal blunders! So, we taught a new session called “The
slippery slopes of practicing field epidemiology: what we learnt from our
mistakes.” We took turns and presented our worst gaffes and nightmares –
from poorly designed research that cost us untold extra hours of work, to
real ethical dilemmas we faced while doing community-based research, and
slip-ups that lead to great embarrassment, and even serious accusations of
scientific misconduct. We spoke about some of our most embarrassing and
painful moments – experiences that taught us more than any textbook or
course. In the end, our message was simple: go into the field, do real
research, and make mistakes. Nothing teaches you as much as real
experience!

We were overwhelmed by the positive response we received for this
session. Several students rated this as the best session in the entire
course. Teachers, I discovered, can confess their mistakes to their
students and still be appreciated! It takes courage to confess your
mistakes. Indeed, it was humbling and inspiring to see a renowned
professor emeritus confess his mistakes. As I learnt from this experience,
the process can be liberating and educative – for our students and us.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

17 December 2004
Madhukar Pai
Postdoctoral Fellow
Division of Epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720