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Dr. Janis Cutler, MD

Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Dr. Cutler teaches Introduction to Psychiatry, a semester-long course at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) that enrolls around 200+ first-year students from both the Medical and Dental programs. While typically an in-person course, with the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Cutler had to rethink the structure of both lectures and weekly small group sessions. Dr. Cutler met the moment by partnering with prior students to support learning. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Cutler did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. To learn more about Dr. Cutler’s innovations, watch her CTL Voices of Hybrid and Online Teaching video

Partner with Prior Students to Support Learning 

Transitioning the medical students’ weekly small group sessions online presented a big challenge. These sessions are intended to allow the students to interact with psychiatric patients and their families and to practice conducting interviews. Before the pandemic, the sessions were conducted on hospital inpatient units and in outpatient clinics. In the spring of 2020, creating a similar experience on Zoom seemed an impossibility. In desperation I invited the help of more senior medical students, whose own clinical training had been put on pause.  These students created and acted in patient scenarios that were based on their recent experiences caring for patients. They were particularly well suited for this task because they remembered what it was like to be in the position of the current first-year students.

Learning how to interview patients is a daunting task. The senior students used their empathic understanding of hospitalized and mentally ill patients, and of anxious and vulnerable students, to create practice interview situations that allowed the students to build skills and confidence despite the lack of actual patients. The first-year students were enthusiastic about these student-led sessions and they subsequently moved ahead successfully through their hospital-based psychiatry training. A large number of them have even been inspired to specialize in psychiatry. When I invited the senior students to participate, I did not expect that they would be able to create such incredibly meaningful small group experiences.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Create opportunities for peer teaching and mentoring in your course. 

We are fortunate to have brilliant, creative students here at Columbia, and they welcome partnering with us to improve the education of their fellow students.  I have not carried forward senior students’ patient scenarios beyond 2020. As telemedicine became the norm we were able to engage psychiatric patients in Zoom-based small group interviews in the spring of 2021, and in 2022 we were able to return to in-person patient interviews.  At the same time the senior students returned to their full-time clinical assignments and were not available to assist in the first-year year students’ course. But I have carried forward a new appreciation for the role that students can play in mentoring and teaching their peers. I am now looking for other ways to integrate peer teaching into my course and I recommend that other instructors do the same.