A Mixed-Methods Exploration of the Developmental Trajectory of Autonomous Motivation in Graduate Medical Learners

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Medical Science Educator


Introduction: Self-determination theory (SDT), when applied to curricular construction, emphasizes curiosity, self-awareness, and resilience. Physicians need these qualities to face the challenges of clinical practice. SDT offers a lens for medical educators to track learner development toward sustainable, rewarding careers. This study describes the changes observed in learner communications about feelings of competence, relatedness, and autonomy across a 3-year family medicine training program designed to develop activated, lifelong learners. Methods: This retrospective, mixed-methods case study uses a phenomenological approach to explore how 51 learners described their experiences at various intervals in residency training. Data collected from 2009 to 2015 from resident focus groups, competency assessment meetings, and faculty assessment reports inform a 3-stage analysis process to determine learner motivation levels along the SDT continuum. Results: Aggregated qualitative and quantitative data show residents’ progression from introjection (controlled motivation) in PGY1, to identification (autonomous motivation) in PGY2, and integration (autonomous) by the end of PGY3. The examination of a single learner’s data set reveals an advanced motivation level in PGY1 (identification), followed by a period of retrograde in PGY2 (introjection), then rebounding in PGY3 (identification), which illustrates how motivation level can be affected by external competency requirements and challenges related to career transitions. Discussion: The examination of self-motivation in medical learners has implications for curriculum development, assessment, teaching and self-directed learning, and resilience training. Learner awareness of intrinsic motivation, and the curriculum designed around it, can better prepare residents for challenges during residency and help them flourish in twenty-first-century medicine.

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