McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Honoured by his peers: Festschrift tribute celebrates Geoff Norman's career in medical education

By Chantall VanRaay
Published: April 29, 2014
Geoff Norman
Geoff Norman, professor, Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Over the span of his career, Geoff Norman has received many commendations for his work as a medical educator including a Karolinska Institutet Prize for Research in Medical Education, a coveted international prize for outstanding research in medical education, a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Dimensions of Clinical Expertise, the only one of its kind in the country, among many others. But the recognition he will receive on April 30, 2014 will top them all when he is lauded by his friends.

The long-time McMaster medical educator's peers will pay tribute to him at a Festschrift celebration at the Canadian Conference on Medical Education and the Ottawa Conference, a biennial forum for worldwide leaders in healthcare.

"I have received a number of honours and awards over the years but this is entirely different as this recognition is from my friends," says the former assistant dean of McMaster's Program for Educational Research and Development and professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics for the Faculty of Health Sciences. "It tells me how lucky I have been as I have friends from all over the world, many of whom are internationally recognized."

While Norman has had a successful career in medical education, it was serendipity that led him there. He started his career as a nuclear physicist, and admits he "stumbled into medical education" after he was offered a job as a research associate by Dr. Victor Neufeld, who at the time was head of the Program for Educational Development at McMaster. He eventually obtained a master's degree in medical education and began the slow and painful divorce from his physics career, he jokes.

Given his impact on the field of medical education over the past three decades, it was a move he doesn't regret. He says his proudest accomplishments include the work he achieved with colleague Alan Neville and many others establishing the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine's COMPASS curriculum, which is an evolution of problem-based learning, originally developed at McMaster in the 1960s. The new curriculum merges the problem-based learning approach with principles of learning established by research in psychology.  His research into how medical students learn has contributed to the theoretical foundation of the problem-based learning pedagogy now emulated worldwide.

Another proud moment, he says, was when he was part of a group who transformed McMaster's health sciences admissions process into a system that has been instituted at medical schools across the globe. In fact, McMaster's "Multiple Mini Interview", a replacement for the traditional interview, has been adopted by more than two-thirds of all Canadian medical schools.

Norman thanks his colleagues for helping accomplish these feats, including long-time friend Alan Neville, associate dean of education in the Faculty of Health Sciences. "Alan in particular was integral in accomplishing these goals, " he says.

Neville, who is one of many students Norman mentored over the years, says if not for Norman, he may have never entered the field of medical education. "He was my mentor," he says. "In fact, he convinced me to pursue a career in medical education and I owe him a depth of gratitude."

Another protege, Rose Hatala, an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, in a letter to Norman, wrote: "I don't think I can truly express how important your mentorship and support has been to me.  It isn't an exaggeration to say that I wouldn't have the career I do if it wasn't for you. You taught me how to think critically.  Without learning from you, I don't think I would have the same approach to looking at research, asking questions, criticizing dogma.  I love your contrarian spirit, and it's something I've tried to emulate in my own way."

Neville adds that the recognition Norman is receiving from his peers is highly deserved. "Geoff Norman is the best known medical educator that McMaster has ever had. He is known internationally for his work and this week his friends from around the world are gathering to throw him a big party."

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