Medical education terms cheatsheet

Medical education terms cheatsheet

Medical Education Terms Cheat Sheeet
Medical Education Terms Cheat Sheeet
Holly Melvin
4th Year Medical Student at The University of Manchester, Instagram account: @that.girl.medic
December 1, 2021

Applying to medical school is really hard! You have to navigate yourself through UCAT, BMAT, work experience, volunteering alongside your A-levels.

Then you come to finally decide which universities you want to apply to, you start looking online or in prospectuses, and they’re filled with all kinds of strange words you’ve never heard of before!! The world of Medical Education is filled with all kinds of specific terminology that you won’t see anywhere else, so don’t worry that you don’t understand everything contained on universities websites or prospectuses.

Terms to remember when applying to Medicine

Although unfortunately not exhaustive, this article will hopefully be a little bit of a “cheat sheet” for you. Something you can save in a tab somewhere and come back to when you come across unfamiliar terminology. Some of the terms covered here, such as “reflection” and “PBL” have whole articles written on them on our website, so if you want to learn more about things such as different course styles, it’s definitely worth checking those out too.

As with all articles, keep a pen and paper handy or a word document open, so you can make notes on anything you find particularly helpful or useful.

Medical Education Terms – Summary

  • Constructive Alignment
  • Curriculum
  • Spiral curriculum
  • Curriculum map
  • Experiential learning
  • Pedagogy
  • Andragogy
  • Problem-based learning (aka PBL)
  • Reflective practice
  • Self-directed learning
  • Team-based learning

Constructive Alignment

Universities might use this term to describe how they have structured and designed their medicine course. It refers to a system in which the intended learning outcomes (what you should know by the end), learning sessions and activities and assessment methods are all aligned to make a coherent, harmonious and logical system.


Curriculum is a word you will definitely come across when reading through university websites and prospectuses. It is a really broad term and refers to the content, learning and educational experiences, outcomes, the reasons why educators have chosen to include certain activities or assessments, and teaching strategies to deliver the course content.

Spiral curriculum

Having a spiral curriculum is a very “in” thing at the moment in medical education, so you might read about lots of different universities having it. A spiral curriculum isn’t actually something new for you as a learner. In fact, you’ve experienced it throughout your entire schooling.

Simply put, in a spiral curriculum, themes and concepts are delivered so that connections are formed. These connections can be horizontal (between different subjects) or vertical (between clinical and basic sciences). Another part of the spiral curriculum is the fact that themes and concepts will be revisited or circled back round to (hence spiral), and each time you will build on the knowledge you already have.

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Curriculum map

Some university websites and prospectuses might contain a curriculum map, which is a pictorial representation of their curriculum. Depending on how they’ve chosen to design it, it might look quite overwhelming or complicated. It can be quite a useful thing to look at because it represents all the different components of the whole curriculum and the links between the different sections – so you can see what the university hopes to teach you and how it might go about this.

Experiential learning

Universities who have integrated early clinical experiences (e.g. spending time in hospital / GP during your so-called pre-clinical years) into their curriculum might talk about experiential learning. Experiential learning is simply learning through experience and through reflecting on your experience and what you did.


Pedagogy is the technical term for teaching—specifically the methods and practice of teaching, as an academic subject with research. Sometimes pedagogy is used to refer specifically to the teaching of children, so some universities may use it for undergraduate courses, whilst others may not and will use the term andragogy, which is explained below.


Andragogy is basically another technical term for teaching, but it refers specifically to the methods and practice of teaching (again in an academic context) used in teaching adults.

Problem-based learning (aka PBL)

PBL versus traditional style courses will be one of the first things you will have to decide when deciding which universities you want to apply to. This is a really big decision, so like I said, make sure to check out our other articles which explain PBL more thoroughly and in-depth, as well as taking some time to think, talk about it with friends and peers, and maybe attend some open-days to ask questions before you make a decision.

PBL is very different to traditional style courses because instead of being teacher-centred, PBL is student-centred. Students learn about themes and concepts by working together in small groups and solving open-ended problems created through discussion of the material provided. This process will normally be monitored and facilitated by a tutor, who won’t necessarily be a doctor.

PBL may only form part of your timetable, and you may have other teaching sessions too, such as lectures, anatomy dissections, communication skills and tutorials.

Reflective practice

Some universities may talk about reflective practice and how they encourage/integrate this into their curriculum. This is because when you become a doctor, being reflective is a really important part of keeping a portfolio and being allowed to continue being a doctor. Reflective practice specifically refers to the process of thinking about and critically analysing your actions in order to improve what you do in the future.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is quite self-explanatory. In self-directed learning, learners take charge of their learning process, which can be quite hard because you will have to figure out for yourself how you’re currently doing and what things you need to be concentrating and working on to improve your learning.

Generally, traditional-style courses have less self-directed learning time, and PBL style courses have more. So if you know that you can or can’t manage your time and structure your learning and revision, this might help you decide which type of course you would like to apply to.

Team-based learning

This is where small group learning will be happening within a large group. You will probably have already experienced this kind of teaching during your a-level.

TBL takes a “flipped classroom approach”, which means that you are meant to come to the teaching session already knowing a lot of the material (often pre-reading is set, so you know what you are supposed to come to the session knowing). You’re tested at the beginning of the session, and then there are group activities that will help to enhance and consolidate your learning.


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