Curiosity and medical education

Med Educ. 2011 Jul;45(7):663-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.03944.x.


Context: For doctors, curiosity is fundamental to understanding each patient's unique experience of illness, building respectful relationships with patients, deepening self-awareness, supporting clinical reasoning, avoiding premature closure and encouraging lifelong learning. Yet, curiosity has received limited attention in medical education and research, and studies from the fields of cognitive psychology and education suggest that common practices in medical education may inadvertently suppress curiosity.

Objectives: This study aimed to identify common barriers to and facilitators of curiosity and related habits of mind in the education of doctors.

Methods: We conducted a theory-driven conceptual exploration and qualitative review of the literature.

Results: Curiosity is related to inquisitiveness, reflection and mindfulness. Instructional practices can suppress curiosity by confusing haste with efficiency, neglecting negative emotions, promoting overconfidence and using teaching approaches that encourage passive learning. Curiosity tends to flourish in educational environments that promote the student's responsibility for his or her own learning, multiple perspectives and mindful reflection on both the subject and the learning process. Specific educational strategies that can support curiosity in classroom and clinical settings include the mindful pacing of teaching, modelling effective management of emotions, confronting uncertainty and overconfidence, using inquiry-based learning, helping students see familiar situations as novel, simultaneously considering multiple perspectives, and maximising the value of small-group discussions. Instructor attributes that contribute to the development of student curiosity include patience, a habit of inquiry, emotional candour, intellectual humility, transparency and recognition of the benefits to be gained in learning from peers.

Conclusions: Curiosity, inquisitiveness and related habits of mind can be supported in medical education through specific, evidence-based instructional approaches. Medical educators should balance the teaching of facts, techniques and protocols with approaches that help students cultivate and sustain curiosity and wonder in the context-rich, often ambiguous world of clinical medicine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Exploratory Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Students, Medical / psychology*