Benjamin Bryant, MLIS
Ochsner Medical Library
Boards & Beyond, published by McGraw-Hill, is a learning resource for medical students. Its purpose is to supplement classroom and textbook learning, and to help students prepare for the board exams they will take in medical school. For the purposes of writing this review, I was granted free trial access to Boards & Beyond.
Boards & Beyond is the brainchild and creation of Dr. Jason Ryan, a cardiologist and faculty member at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He has extensive experience in teaching, including having been chief resident, training interns at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. At the University of Connecticut, his lectures were so popular that he began developing this product in 2014. Boards & Beyond has become one of the most popular board preparation products for medical students worldwide. McGraw-Hill purchased Boards & Beyond in December 2022.
In their own words, Boards & Beyond provides “video libraries and question banks designed to build a solid foundation of understanding that goes beyond.” The product is aimed at medical students of all levels, from first year to residency, and by extension, medical school faculty and administrators. Boards & Beyond consists of three modules: Step 1 Preclinical, Step 2-3 Clinical, and the upcoming Clinical Confidence (which is beyond the scope of this review). Each module comprises a series of categories and subcategories. Each subcategory contains a varying number of topic videos and accompanying question banks.
The Step 1 Preclinical product covers 20 categories (e.g., Cardiology, Cell Biology, Dermatology), and comprises 447 videos (averaging about 15 minutes, for a total video run time of 126 hours), and 2,325 questions. The Step 2-3 Clinical product includes 16 categories, 265 videos (with a total run time of 78 hours and 34 minutes), and 1,394 questions.
These numbers are not static; new videos may be added, and videos and quiz questions are subject to revision, for instance, to incorporate new drug information or in response to user feedback.
In a few cases, category and even subcategory titles may be the same between parts, but the material itself does not overlap. For instance, both Step 1 Preclinical and Step 2-3 Clinical include a Cardiology category, but most of the subcategories differ. Both have a subcategory for Arrhythmias, but the videos and question banks in the two are not the same.
Boards & Beyond is accessible via a website. While a mobile device can access it via a browser, thus far, there is no mobile device app for Boards & Beyond.
The videos contain lectures by Dr. Ryan with slides, which consist of printed text and illustrations which he marks to emphasize or further illustrate certain points. The questions are designed to resemble USMLE or COMLEX-USA questions. They are multiple-choice, and can be answered in two modes: timed or tutored. The tutored mode provides explanations for all answers, correct or incorrect, which helps students learn where they went wrong.
Boards & Beyond interacts principally with two other McGraw-Hill resources by referencing corresponding pages for each video. These include First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, Le et al. (McGraw Hill, 2022), a very popular resource among medical students, and The White Coat Companion, Lorinsky et al. (2023) for Step 2-3 Clinical, a relatively new book co-authored by Dr. Ryan and two other doctors. Some other resources are also referenced, a list of which is found in the “Books” option from the menu.
All slides are available as PDF sets to download for further study and note-taking. They can even be uploaded into students’ favorite note-taking apps, as well as Anki, a flashcard software popular among medical students. The slide sets can also be purchased in hard-copy format on Amazon.
Users can watch the videos at various speeds, with or without closed captioning, and videos can be linked in user-created playlists. Users can also create custom quizzes using questions from any number of different quizzes. For instance, learners may want to create a quiz incorporating both cardiology and pulmonary questions, only new or already-answered questions, or any combination thereof.
Boards & Beyond has a limited search feature for finding videos. Users can search by video title, category or subcategory, video index, or all of the above. After searching “all,” the video index search will find the most results by far, as each video has an extensive index of terms associated with it.
However, the search feature’s utility is severely hindered by its inability to unite words in a phrase with quotation marks or use a Boolean “AND.” Multiple words entered will have an assumed “OR” between them, resulting in plenty of irrelevant search results for any given phrase, such as “multiple myeloma” or “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.” Inserting an “AND” will just add the word “and” to the list of single words searched. Truncation is also not enabled. The only punctuation or special character that can be typed in the search box is a dash. On the other hand, it is potentially useful to see all the videos that include information on a single term, such as “SSRI.”
For the Step 1 Pre-Clinical module, there is a “Step 1-Preclinical Index” (under “Books”) which fills the gap in the limited search function. It is a detailed index (which includes plenty of phrases), indicating which video pertains to each entry. Such an index for Step 2-3 Clinical would be a worthy addition.
The outstanding features of this resource are undoubtedly the videos and question banks and their manipulability. The graphically rich video lectures are offered in a conversational tone and present material in a way that is geared toward understanding rather than just memorization. At the same time, Dr. Ryan frequently notes “high yield” concepts or facts for the board exams.
Further integration with other resources could be an enhancement. For example, McGraw Hill offers plenty of medical resources in its AccessMedicine collections, which may be appropriate to integrate. Since it is a fairly new purchase for them, we may expect such enhancements to come along.
The search tool should be improved, at least to the point of enabling phrase searches and/or Boolean searches. An app would also be a good feature to develop. When I used Boards & Beyond at home on an iPad or iPhone, I encountered some performance issues absent with the more robust connectivity at the workplace. Besides videos stalling, I also found myself having to adjust the volume frequently within a video, which did not occur when using it on the PC at work. Also, one has to work a bit to keep the content in frame on a smaller screen.
Overall, I find the website to be a bit “busy” as well. I imagine medical students are used to such complexity, and there are a lot of features to use. However, creating a smoother, more intuitive interface would be helpful.
Boards & Beyond is available through individual or institutional subscriptions for up to two years. Individual subscriptions can be as short as one week. Group discounts are available for students whose institution does not subscribe. Institutional licenses may last from 12-24 months. Institutions also receive a discounted price, based on the number of students and class cohorts.
Students can track their own usage of the product, including their progress in quiz performance. If an institution provides Boards & Beyond for its students on a token, or “promo code” basis, the administrator can see who has used the product and the number of times. If an institution provides Boards & Beyond for all students, the Step 1 module for year 1 and 2 students, or the Step 2-3 module for year 3 and 4 students, it can obtain an IP authenticated version which provides somewhat deeper usage data, including total and average video watch time and total quizzes taken.
The IP authenticated version also provides faculty tools such as the ability to assign videos, playlists, and quizzes to students. This facilitates an educational trend known as the flipped classroom model, wherein students watch the videos (and/or otherwise prepare ahead of time) and then come to class ready to discuss the material. Boards & Beyond is also useful for remedial assignments, as well as self-directed learning.
Libraries supporting a medical school should definitely consider offering Boards & Beyond to its medical students or recommending it to the appropriate administrators or faculty. The Boards & Beyond homepage provides a good deal of information on the product, including an option for a free trial. Even a college or advanced high school library may want to consider some type of subscription, perhaps involving dedicated terminals, for students to use Boards & Beyond to familiarize themselves with what medical school would be like, or to get a head start if they are already on such a path. Boards & Beyond is an effective educational resource for preparing for medical school exams and deepening one’s knowledge of the medical sciences.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review referred to Clinical Confidence by a different name. – December 1, 2023