BACKGROUND Clerkship experiences are considered crucial for the development of clinical competence. Yet whether there is a direct relationship between the nature and volume of patient encounters and learning outcomes is far from clear. Some evidence in the literature points towards the importance of clinical supervision on student learning, but the relationship between clinical supervision, patient encounters and student competence remains unclear. OBJECTIVES This study aimed firstly to determine the variation in students' clinical experiences within and across sites; secondly, to identify the causes of this variation, and thirdly, to investigate the consequences of this variation on students' competence. METHODS Clerkship students at 12 hospital sites recorded their patient encounters in logbooks. Site characteristics that might influence the variation in patient encounters were collected. Student competence was determined by 3 independent indicators: a practical end-of-clerkship examination; a theoretical end-of-clerkship examination, and an evaluation of professional performance. A model was developed to test the available clerkship data using structural equation modelling (SEM) software. RESULTS Analysis of the logbooks revealed a large variation in the number of patients encountered by students. The average length of patient stay, number of patients admitted, and quality of supervision accounted partly for this variation. An increased number of patient encounters did not directly lead to improved competence. Quality of supervision turned out to be crucially important because it directly impacted student learning and also positively influenced the number of patient encounters. CONCLUSION Monitoring the effectiveness of clerkship by merely asking students to keep a tally of the problems and diseases they encounter, without paying attention to the quality of supervision, does not contribute towards improving student learning.
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