Exploring the impact of education on preclinical medical students’ tolerance of uncertainty: a qualitative longitudinal study

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Tolerance of uncertainty, a construct describing individuals’ responses to perceived uncertainty, has relevancy across healthcare systems, yet little work explores the impact of education on medical students’ tolerance of uncertainty. While debate remains as to whether tolerance of uncertainty is changeable or static, the prevailing conceptual healthcare tolerance of uncertainty model (Hillen et al. in Soc Sci Med 180:62–75, 2017) suggests that individuals’ tolerance of uncertainty is influenced by so-called moderators. Evidence regarding education’s role as a moderator of tolerance of uncertainty is, however, lacking. Preliminary work exploring medical students’ professional identity formation within anatomy learning identified tolerance of uncertainty as a theme warranting further exploration. Extending from this work, our research question was: How does the anatomy education learning environment impact medical students’ tolerance of uncertainty? To address this question, qualitative data were collected longitudinally across two successive cohorts through online discussion forums during semester and end of semester interviews. Framework analysis identified five stimuli of uncertainty, four moderators of uncertainty, and cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses to uncertainty with variable valency (positive and/or negative). Longitudinal data analyses indicated changes in stimuli, moderators and responses to uncertainty over time, suggesting that tolerance of uncertainty is changeable rather than static. While our findings support the Hillen et al. (Soc Sci Med 180:62–75, 2017) model in parts, our data extend this model and the previous literature. Although further research is needed about students’ development of tolerance of uncertainty in the clinical learning environment, we encourage medical educators to incorporate aspects of tolerance of uncertainty into curricular and learning environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-77
Number of pages25
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • Ambiguity
  • Anatomy
  • Medical education
  • Qualitative longitudinal research
  • Tolerance
  • Uncertainty

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