What I am Learning in the Physician Assistant Education Program

Curious about what classes I have and what I have been learning? It has been a few weeks into the Physician Assistant Education Program at McMaster and I think I have had a good amount of exposure to all my classes to be able to describe them to you.


Clinical Sciences Tutorial (listed as MF1 in schedule)

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Typical weekly schedule

One of the things that comes to mind when McMaster University comes up is Problem Based Learning (PBL). Some describe it as “the problem drives the learning” and I never really understood what that meant aside from knowing it did not involve sitting in a big lecture hall with my PowerPoint notes and listening to a professor talk for an hour. Now that I have been to a few tutorials, I realized that I can learn so much about medicine from just one case-problem.

In tutorials, we learn about the physiology and pathophysiology surrounding a certain body system. The content is similar to what you are learning in a Human Physiology course, but instead of memorizing what is on the powerpoint slide, we are responsible for researching all that information on our own. Currently, we are learning about the respiratory system. My group meets twice a week for tutorial. We have a tutor (who is a physician) that facilitates the discussion. We are given a case and I have listed the steps we take in each tutorial.

  1. A new case is given (e.g. 47 year old male patient presents with shortness of breath…)
  2. As a group, we decide on what we want to know more about in order to understand what this patient is going through (setting objectives)
    • “Define Shortness of Breath”
    • “How does breathing work”
    • “What is the normal and abnormal respiratory rate”
  3. Go home or to the library and research information that pertains to the case that can provide answers to the objectives
  4. Regroup and share our findings on the objectives we set in the last tutorial

The first time we regrouped for our first case, I felt incredibly stupid. I felt that I was not bringing enough information to the group or that there was just so much to know from one case. However, now that we are on case 6, I feel a lot more competent. I think that setting good objectives so that you know exactly what you are looking for helps. I also try to only focus on what is important to the case, this way I do not spend time looking into unrelated things. This class basically takes up most of my time. Another thing I need to keep in mind is that it is okay to not know everything. This is why we have group meetings, to discuss and share our findings. If I do not understand a concept, there is always someone happy to explain it to me.

A little peak of what my notes look like for Tutorial
A little peak of what my notes look like for Tutorial. I like using Microsoft OneNote because 1) I can type anywhere on the document! and 2) everything is synced online so I do not have to worry about losing all my notes in the event my laptop breaks down on me.

That being said, I really like PBL. With didactic learning (what we are used to in undergraduate lectures), I was spoon fed information and only learned what the professor taught me. With PBL, I am learning beyond lectures. There is no spoon-feeding of information. The information is also retained better in my brain (e.g. after this one paediatric case, I cannot stop thinking about croup whenever someone mentions about children). I love how I am not just merely memorizing things…like I did in undergrad.

Interviewing, Examining and Reasoning (IER)

One of the rooms in the Centre for Simulation-Based Learning

So far this is my favourite class! Mainly because this is where we get to be on our feet and actually perform exams. We have IER once per week. So far, we went over how to take a patient history (we have not practiced it yet). Last week, we learned and practiced taking blood pressure using a pressure valve and stethoscope. At first, many of us had trouble hearing the pulse, but when we finally did it right and heard it, it was the biggest accomplishment of that day! This week, we learned how to do a lower respiratory exam (eg. palpations, percussions and auscultations). We are definitely having trouble doing percussions.

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Along with IER, we will get a chance to practice what we learned on Simulated Patients (actors)! There are also IER placements organized by the program. Once per month we will shadow a professional for half a day in the body system we are currently studying. So, for our first IER placement, we will be shadowing a respiratory therapist.

Professional Competencies (ProComp)

I only recently attended my first ProComp class and it is also once every two weeks so this is as much information I can provide for you for now. Basically, we will have the medical knowledge we need to to treat patients, but being a professional is something entirely different. This course is a way for us to familiarize ourselves with our profession, where we stand in the health care system and how to approach patients professionally. For the first term of this course, we will learn about Professionalism, the role of the PA, principles and structure of the health care system, chronic disease, and determinants of health.


In this course, we are focusing on how to interact with our patients. This class is once a month (I know, so little). Standardized patients (SP), who are actors, come in and we interview them. For example, in my first communications class, we went over important points in doctor-patient interviews. Then, we were split into two groups. One group sat inside the room to observe the interview, while the other group was outside waiting to be called in one at a time and interview the SP.

It was difficult for me when I was interviewing the SP because I was asking questions that were not on the right track. I realized after the interview that I missed a lot of important cues. I noticed that the SP did not keep eye contact with me, however, it did not occur to me that my SP wore different coloured socks and only had one earring on. These observations would have led me to ask the appropriate questions and properly address her main concern for coming in. This was a good experience though! From the feedback my peers gave me, I can improve on my interviewing skills next time. It all takes practice!

For more information on course description, check out “Typical Weekly Schedule of First Year PA Student” that I contributed in writing.


5 thoughts on “What I am Learning in the Physician Assistant Education Program

  1. Andrea says:

    Hi Sandy! I’m in the process of applying for the Mcmaster program now and these blog posts are making me so excited and even more eager to be part of the profession. Thank you so much!

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