Teaching evidence-based medicine (EBM) in schools

Lynda Ware, a retired GP and Senior Fellow in General Practice at Cochrane UK, and Selena Ryan-Vig, Cochrane UK’s Communications and Engagement Officer, tell us about the talks and workshops they run with secondary school students, teaching evidence-based medicine and encouraging critical thinking about health claims and advice. 

Page updated: 27 April 2023. Cochrane UK continues to teach school children about evidence-based practice, and now delivers the teaching sessions online. Lynda Ware has now retired and Dr Rebecca Gould now joins Selena Ryan-Vig to deliver the sessions.  We post details of forthcoming sessions, including how to register, on the Cochrane UK website

Since 2016, Cochrane UK has been visiting secondary schools in and around Oxford, teaching evidence-based medicine (EBM) and highlighting its relevance in our everyday lives. We already had an established community programme, known fondly as the ‘Women’s Institute (WI) talks’, and the schools project evolved from this. To be more precise, the venture was suggested by two WI ladies, who questioned why Cochrane wasn’t speaking to young people, whose deep-rooted aversion to seeking medical help and reliance on Dr Google are well known.

In November 2016 we faced our first audience of students in an after-school Science Club. We realised immediately how hard it is to teach well and that we would have to learn quickly if we were to survive. Nevertheless, our first foray into the world of education was well received and we can now boast a growing portfolio of schools who welcome us into their classrooms.

Martin Burton presents to a group of students
Teaching evidence-based medicine: Martin Burton explains the difference between ‘absence of evidence’ and ‘evidence of absence’ by challenging students to disprove that he has an invisible unicorn hiding in his office…

Encouraging pupils to think critically about medical claims

In our talks and workshops we aim to bring an awareness of why it is important to question the evidence behind medical claims. We use topical newspaper headlines to illustrate how medical evidence can be misrepresented in the media – how it can sometimes be inaccurate and sometimes just plain wrong. We illustrate the relevance of evidence-based medicine on a personal, everyday level by looking at how we choose cold remedies. We consider medical interventions at national and global levels, using the HPV vaccination programme as an example. We look at what constitutes a randomized controlled trial and how a systematic review is produced.

With the unfailingly generous encouragement and feedback from the teachers we met, we soon appreciated that just talking at the students quickly lost their attention and that we needed to use interactive activities to make our points effectively. Different forms of communication, such as animations and videos, also hit the spot. We have taught pupils from Years 9-13 in formal lessons and in extracurricular science and medical clubs.

Lynda Ware presents to a group of students
Lynda Ware challenges the students to think about how they would run their own clinical trial, and what questions they would like to answer

Special sessions: teaching evidence-based medicine to aspiring medics

We have run a number of extended workshops for sixth-formers applying to read medicine. A couple of these workshops have included interactive sessions with Anna Noel-Storr, to introduce Cochrane Crowd and to give a taste of what systematic reviewers do. You can read more about the first workshop we ran, in October 2018, here.

Anna-Noel Storr works with a group of students on their laptops.
Anna-Noel Storr, co-lead of Cochrane Crowd introduces a group of sixth formers to the platform.

Spreading the word…

The outreach project now has momentum and we have become known in and around Oxfordshire. During the pandemic, we began delivering the sessions entirely online – and have continued to do so. Doing so has enabled us to reach pupils throughout the UK. We would be delighted to hear from anyone who has undertaken similar teaching to learn about your experiences. We post details of forthcoming sessions, including how to register, on the Cochrane UK website.

Join in the conversation on Twitter with @CochraneUK and @Lynda_Ware or leave a comment on the blog.

Read Selena Ryan-Vig’s biography.

Lynda Ware’s biography can be found below.

An earlier version of this blog was originally posted on Cochrane.org

Teaching evidence-based medicine (EBM) in schools by Lynda Ware

is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

4 Comments on this post

  1. Hi , great article and a great idea. I have emailed r.e setting up a scheme like this in my area and possible directions to take this in!

    I look forward to a response


    Dr Sean Burns

    Sean Burns / Reply
  2. Excellent! Is there a way to get the syllabus or the training materials? I think this is even helpful for college students. Almost all the misinformation is spread by adults.

    Anoop / Reply
  3. Love this article. I’m President of Birmingham Widening Access to Medical Sciences and we are currently looking to expand our schools outreach programme in the West Midlands. It would be fantastic if we could collaborate on this and share resources. Our email is: uobwams@gmail.com and our website is http://www.bwams.co.uk

    Kirsty Morrison / Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *