Pre-prescribing: Creating a zone of proximal development where medical students can safely fail

Hannah Gillespie*, Helen Reid, Richard Conn, Tim Dornan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


PURPOSE: Prescribing is a common task, often performed by junior clinicians, with potential for significant harm. Despite this, it is common for medical students to qualify having only prescribed in simulated scenarios or assessments. We implemented an alternative: students were given pens with purple ink, which permitted them to write prescriptions for real patients. We set out to understand how this intervention, pre-prescribing, created a zone of proximal development (ZPD) for learners.

METHODS: An anonymous, mixed methods, evaluation questionnaire was distributed to all final-year medical students at one university in the United Kingdom. Analysis was guided by Experience Based Learning theory.

RESULTS: Two hundred and eighteen students made 386 free-text comments. Most participants reported that pre- helped them become capable doctors (Strongly Agree n = 96, 45%; Agree: n = 110, 50%). Pre-prescribing created a ZPD in which participants could use the tools of practice in authentic contexts under conditions that made it safe to fail.

CONCLUSIONS: This research shows how a theoretically informed intervention can create conditions to enhance learning. It encourages educators to identify aspects of routine practice that could be delegated, or co-performed, by learners. With appropriate support, educators can create 'safe-fails' which allow learners to participate safely in authentic, risky, and indeterminate situations they will be expected to navigate as newly qualified clinicians.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1385-1391
Number of pages7
JournalMedical Teacher
Issue number12
Early online date12 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2022


  • Prescribing education
  • assistantship
  • preparation for practice
  • workplace learning


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