Why do students struggle in their first year of medical school? A qualitative study of student voices

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BACKGROUND: Struggling at medical school incorporates academic failure, course disruption and early course exit. Struggling is usually multi-factorial involving academic, personal, financial and health factors. Struggling students may fail to engage with available support. First year students are particularly susceptible as they transition to university and a professional career.

METHODS: The study aim was to explore medical students' own voices on struggling and assess how they match up to existing literature. During one academic year, all first year medical students at the University of Birmingham (UK) who opted to leave or were required to withdraw (n = 52) were asked to participate in an individual exit interview. Fifteen students responded and fourteen (27%) agreed to be interviewed. Interviews were face to face (n = 10), telephone (n = 3) and via email (n = 1). Interviews were unstructured and led by a general open question. Framework analysis identified key data themes.

RESULTS: Students described year one of medical school as a critical transition. They simultaneously needed to adapt to being a university student, a medical student and a doctor. A six-group typology of students emerged, each of which struggled with one or more of these adaptations. The groups were: wrong degree choice, mental health problems, acute crisis, at capacity, slow starter and family rock. Some students experienced an isolated problem from within this typology. Most had a multi-factorial story of struggling. Mental health problems and acute crises were the most common issues. Early professional identity formation was a key hurdle. Help-seeking behaviours were varied.

CONCLUSIONS: This study explores the narratives of medical students who struggled from an early stage and presents a data-driven typology of their issues. It advances existing qualitative understanding of this topic, which to date is predominantly derived from educator perceptions and not specific to early course issues. Although our results broadly cohere with existing knowledge, we also present novel findings which may reflect our focus on first year students. Issues around early professional identity formation may reflect the increasing emphasis on professionalism in medical school curricula. Listening to these narratives could help university staff to identify students at risk of struggling for targeted support.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100
Number of pages13
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank all of the students who participated in the study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Medical eductation
  • Undergraduate
  • Attrition
  • Struggling
  • Professional identity
  • Mental health
  • support


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