Student-taught education finds its footing in PharmD curriculum

“Kylie Jenner calls you in a panic, because y’all are besties,” said UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy student Jackie El-Sokkary, Class of 2021, with a straight face to a group of ten fellow students. “She missed her daily ethinyl estradiol birth control dose at 30 micrograms and needs to know if she’s at risk of pregnancy.”

The students' discussion of a celebrity’s hypothetical drug dosing mishap was more than just banter, however. El-Sokkary, a second-year student in the School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, was an instructor in a new program, Student-Taught Education in Pharmacy (STEP). She had designed her lesson to balance the scientific rigor of factors like drug bioavailability with some humor and, given the late hour, snacks.

Initiated, organized, and led by students, STEP was designed to accompany the School’s PharmD curriculum—a three-year, year-round program rooted in scientific thinking and patient care. Modeled off a program in the UCSF School of Medicine, STEP provides academic and social support to beginning PharmD students and gives advanced students the opportunity to develop their teaching skills while brushing up on old material.

“Our focus in STEP is not on re-teaching material the first-year students have already encountered in the classroom,” said pharmacy student Leena Dolle, Class of 2021, who co-led STEP with classmate Niamh O’Grady during the past year. “It's about synthesis—how to connect pharmacology with therapeutics, and with physiology, which is expected of us in the new, integrated curriculum.”

Amid restrictions on in-person gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, STEP transitioned its lessons to distance learning. In the process, it has earned itself a place among the School’s academic, professional, and social “pillars of support” for PharmD students, according to Igor Mitrovic, MD, faculty member in the UCSF Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine and director of the renal theme of the PharmD curriculum.

“I think STEP is here to stay,” said Mitrovic, who has mentored the student leaders of STEP since its inception.

Learning to teach and teaching to learn

In early 2019, Dolle and O’Grady approached Mitrovic about creating a student-led teaching program for the new PharmD curriculum, then only a year old. It wasn’t the first time such a program had been proposed, but with the blessing of Mitrovic and other faculty members, the pair drafted plans for STEP and earned a Mary Anne Koda-Kimble Seed Award for Innovation to get the program off the ground.

That summer, Mitrovic, along with School faculty members Conan MacDougall, PharmD, and Katherine Gruenberg, PharmD, trained the first cohort of STEP teachers.

“We weren't just being thrown in and told ‘good luck,’” said O’Grady. “We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was aligning with what faculty were doing in the classroom, but also aligning with what they felt would be good teaching skills.”

The faculty members helped the student teachers plan for synchronizing their STEP discussions with current material in the PharmD curriculum and provided tips for keeping student groups engaged. Mitrovic also made sure to cover scenarios that new teachers often face, like coming up short when a student asks a difficult question.

“The point is not to know all the answers to students’ questions, but to be humble,” he said. “A good teacher admits what they don’t know, does the work of looking up those answers, and shares it with students.”

As the start to the fall 2019 quarter and STEP’s first scheduled lessons approached, Mitrovic left the student teachers with some motivational wisdom. “Really, the purpose for a teacher is to inspire, to make students who want to learn,” he recalled saying.

STEP from a distance

Through the fall and winter quarters, STEP offered panels of 25-minute lessons to the first-year PharmD class each week.

As the academic year progressed, Dolle and O’Grady prepared to hand over the reins of STEP to Jennifer La and Darra Drucker, both in the Class of 2022. La and Drucker selected over a dozen of their classmates to teach the incoming PharmD class, and this new cohort of STEP instructors planned on delivering a series of lessons to same-year peers in the spring quarter in preparation for teaching in the fall.

But, in the second week of March, San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered all city residents to shelter in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and STEP was faced with either adapting its lessons for distance learning or taking a break.

“We met with the other new teachers in mid-March, and, overwhelmingly, everyone wanted to continue with STEP and put it on Zoom,” said La. “Even though times are stressful, we still wanted to provide that access and educational support to our peers. If the curriculum is still going, STEP should still be going.”

STEP from a distance, it turned out, was still a hit, and attendance increased as students flocked to the online sessions to stay in touch with their classmates.

While it’s hard to objectively measure the impact of the program on any given student, the feedback that Dolle, O’Grady, La, and Drucker have received via surveys has been immensely encouraging. Students have reported that the program increased their confidence in a learning environment, reinforced their knowledge and communication abilities, and strengthened their connections with each other and with the older PharmD cohort.

For Mitrovic, who sees the student teachers of STEP as colleagues, and for the student teachers themselves, the program has also given these PharmD students a critical set of pedagogy skills that they will carry throughout their careers in health care.

“In the field of pharmacy, you're constantly counseling and teaching patients and finding new ways to educate your coworker physicians or coworkers in industry,” said Drucker. “There will be education aspects no matter where we end up, and we’ll always need to be ready to teach and learn, ourselves, as science and medicine evolve.”


School of Pharmacy, Department of Clinical Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.