Impact of the USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX Level 1 transition to Pass/Fail on osteopathic medical student stress levels and board preparation

Debra (Anderson) Twardowski, DO; Jennifer Montemayor, PhD; Mark Payton, PhD; and Jacquelyn Waller, PharmD, BCPS
Notes and Affiliations
Notes and Affiliations

Received: February 22, 2023

Accepted: July 20, 2023

Published: September 5, 2023

  • Debra (Anderson) Twardowski, DO, 

    Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Parker, CO, USA

  • Jennifer Montemayor, PhD, 

    Office of Preclinical Education, Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Parker, CO, USA

  • Mark Payton, PhD, 

    Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Parker, CO, USA

  • Jacquelyn Waller, PharmD, BCPS, 

    Rocky Vista University Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, Billings, MT, USA

J Osteopath Med; 123(12): 563-569

Context: The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 and Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX) Level 1 transitioned from a numeric scoring system to a Pass/Fail designation in 2022. This transition intended to decrease stress, improve medical student well-being, and encourage residency program directors to emphasize other aspects of residency applications. Pass/Fail score transitions in the undergraduate medical education curriculum have improved medical student psychological well-being and satisfaction; whether these same benefits translate to the board examination period is unknown.

Objectives: The objectives of this study are to assess the impact of USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX Level 1 grade scale transition on medical student stress, wellness, board preparation decisions, and future residency selection processes. Investigators hypothesized that students under the Pass/Fail designation would experience less stress during the intensive study period leading up to USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX Level 1 and devote more time to other aspects of their residency applications.

Methods: To examine the impact on osteopathic medical student (OMS) stress and approach to board preparation, two surveys were administered to Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine (RVU-COM) students before (Class of 2023) and after (Class of 2024) the transition to a Pass/Fail designation. All students within the RVU-COM Classes of 2023 and 2024 were invited to participate. The Cohen Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10) was administered at the beginning of the focused board study period in May 2021 and 2022 to the Class of 2023 and 2024, respectively. The investigator-designed Licensing Exam Questionnaire (LEQ), meant to capture board preparation patterns, residency application perspectives, and wellness during examination preparation, was administered immediately after the board examination deadline in July 2021 and 2022 to the Class of 2023 and 2024, respectively. Statistical analysis included the use of independent t tests (numeric variables) and chi-square tests (categorical data). This project was considered exempt from full Institutional Review Board review.

Results: Approximately one-third of the Class of 2023 (PSS-10: n=86; LEQ: n=93) and 2024 (PSS-10=89; LEQ: n=92) responded. No difference was detected in mean PSS-10 score, 20.14 (SD=7.3) compared to 19.92 (SD=6.56) for the Class of 2023 and 2024 (p=0.84), respectively. The Class of 2023 reported more weeks studying (mean 6.27 weeks, SD=0.79) vs. the Class of 2024 (mean 5.44 weeks, SD=0.007), p<0.001, more practice examinations taken X 2 (1, n=182)=13.75, p<0.001, and a greater proportion scheduled examinations after June 20 X 2 (1, n=182)=29.01, p<0.001. No difference existed in hours studying per day, sequence of Step 1/Level 1, time between examinations, money spent, or type of study resources utilized.

Conclusions: The transition of USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX Level 1 to a Pass/Fail designation did not reduce stress for OMSs at a single, multicampus COM. Respondents, however, altered board preparation practices in meaningful ways. As student behaviors and board-study patterns emerge, these insights must be connected to outcomes in the future.

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