This paper reports on medical students’ views on the ways in which their ‘soft skills’ were developed. It is the result of a study on soft skills among two groups of students before and after curriculum reform at the School of Medicine of the University of Pretoria. One of the aims of the reform was to provide more teaching and learning opportunities for the development of soft skills. Soft skills include professional interpersonal and social skills, communication skills, and professional and ethical attitudes.
As symbolic interactionism was used as the theoretical framework to guide the research, qualitative methods were used to collect the data. A purposive-theoretical sample of 42 final-year medical students from the traditional curriculum and 49 from the reformed curriculum was recruited. Data were collected by means of focus groups, individual in-depth interviews and autobiographical sketches.
The same categories of comments emerged from the data collected from the study participants from both the traditional and the reformed curriculum. The students ascribed their behaviour related to soft skills to personality and innate features. They had varying opinions on whether soft skills could be taught, but there was as a strong feeling that teaching should focus on principles and guidelines for dealing with difficult situations. They believed that, in the end, they should take responsibility for their own development of soft skills.
Most participants felt they could at least grow through exposure to teaching activities and the observation of role models. They also indicated that they had developed their soft skills and constructed their own identity through their interaction with others. Their definition of situations was shaped by their interactions with doctors and educators, fellow students and other health professionals. Interaction with patients was considered the most important. For both groups of students their third year was a watershed, as it is the first year of more intensive patient contact and the beginning of serious learning from interaction with patients.
The views on the development of soft skills differed very little between the traditional and reformed curriculum groups, except that students who had followed the reformed curriculum felt more prepared through the increased teaching and training efforts. Further consideration needs to be given to the intention of the changed curriculum compared to the actual effect.
The way in which the participants in the study described their development of soft skills could be categorised as a complex interplay between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’. Instead of using the word ‘acquisition’ of soft skills, ‘development’ seemed to be more appropriate. The metaphor of ‘guiding’ and ‘growing’ also captures the development of these skills better than the terms ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’.
Teaching activities in the clinical years should be adapted with a view to facilitating the students’ professional growth. New models for the development of medical educators should be created and institutional barriers should be investigated.