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The first year of medical or dental school can be daunting for some students. Both schools, however, have student-run programs that assist in the adjustment to the rigors of the first year while fostering a sense of teamwork.

For example, Dr. Josh Gibson P&S'98, felt teamwork was not emphasized enough in his medical school classes. So, when he became head of a student-led workshop in 1995, he developed a program for students in the anatomy class lab that encouraged teamwork – a system of station rotation that enabled each student to dissect his or her own animal. "In past years, one or two students in the anatomy group often took charge of the dissection," says Dr. Molly Wanner P&S'02, a resident in dermatology who found the change extremely helpful. "Under the new format, everyone worked together as a team sharing knowledge and improving weaknesses."

The P&S program under which this program was created – the Student Success Network – began in 1991 in response to student requests for help. Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry at P&S and clinical sociomedical science at the Mailman School of Public Health, with the support of Dr. Linda Lewis, senior associate dean at P&S, started the program, basing it on one Dr. Fullilove founded at the University of California at San Francisco in 1986.

Through workshops and study groups, the Student Success Network has reduced failure rates and helped students develop a sense of teamwork, says Dr. Fullilove. Second-year students conduct tutorials, review lab and lecture materials in a small group format, and give mock tests to help first-year students manage the curriculum.

With help from students and members of Columbia's Center for Research and Evaluation, Dr. Fullilove led an evaluation of the program two years ago based on surveys, test scores, and other academic data. The evaluation found that in the nine years before the network started, about two or three people each year failed the first year at P&S – either dropping out or repeating the first year – out of a class of about 160. In the first nine years after the program's founding, though, the failure total dropped to about one first-year student per year. On the national board exam that students take after their second year of medical school, P&S's failure rate dropped from 4 percent before the network was created to 1 percent afterward.

The School of Dental and Oral Surgery's program, the Academic Success Program, is a similar program that has achieved equally remarkable results. The program, supported through the SDOS Office of Student and Alumni Affairs, provides voluntary review sessions for groups of students and confidential, free, one-on-one tutoring for first- and second-year students with academic difficulties. Fellow students in the year ahead who do extremely well act as tutors and group leaders for the first-year students.

An evaluation last year showed the program led to a reduction in SDOS's first-year failure rate from four or five in the mid-90s – out of a class of about 80 students – to one or two each year in recent years. At least three-quarters of the first-year class goes to review sessions, says Dr. Martin J. Davis, associate dean of SDOS. "We also do on average six to eight hours of tutoring for about a dozen academically struggling first-year students per semester," Dr. Davis says. "That has been a successful effort, as indicated by our low failure rate."