Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
“It’s okay to not know …” a qualitative.pdf (1.16 MB)

"It's okay to not know …" a qualitative exploration of faculty approaches to working with uncertainty

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journal contribution
posted on 2022-11-24, 16:10 authored by Jenny MoffettJenny Moffett, Elizabeth Armitage-Chan, Jennifer Hammond, Síle Kelly, Teresa PawlikowskaTeresa Pawlikowska

Background: Whilst it is recognised that a capacity to manage uncertainty is an essential aspect of working as a healthcare professional, there is little clear guidance on how to facilitate student learning in this domain. A lack of faculty development opportunities also suggests that health professions' educators may feel ill-equipped to assist students in developing effective approaches to uncertainty. The purpose of this study was to explore a faculty development intervention designed to help educators unpack students' experiences of uncertainty, and identify attributes which may help students to manage uncertain situations.

Methods: This qualitative study was informed by a constructivist methodological approach, where participants were encouraged to share meaning around the nature of uncertainty in health professions' education. Two 90-min faculty development sessions were held. These sessions invited participants to apply Han et al.'s taxonomy of uncertainty to role-played scenarios of student uncertainty within a focus group setting. Focus group data were collected, and examined using a two-stage, hybrid approach of deductive and inductive thematic analysis.

Results: Han et al.'s taxonomy helped participants to identify multiple sources and issues of uncertainty in the role played scenarios, thus unveiling the extent of uncertainties encountered by health professions' learners. Data analysis revealed four themes overall: "Sources of uncertainty", "Issues of uncertainty", "Uncertainty attributes", and "Learning environment." Participants also contributed to a list of attributes which they considered helpful to undergraduate health professions' students in managing uncertain situations. These included an awareness of the nature of uncertainty within healthcare practice, an ability to recognise uncertainty, and adopting attitudes of adaptability, positivity, and resilience.

Conclusions: This study highlights the successful use of Han et al.'s taxonomy of uncertainty within a faculty development setting. Our findings suggest that the taxonomy is a practical and versatile tool that health professions' educators can use in shared reflections and conversations around uncertainty with students or colleagues.


HPEC (Health Professions’ Education Centre), RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences



The original article is available at

Published Citation

Moffett J, Armitage-Chan E, Hammond J, Kelly S, Pawlikowska T. "It's okay to not know …" a qualitative exploration of faculty approaches to working with uncertainty. BMC Med Educ. 2022;22(1):135.

Publication Date

1 March 2022

PubMed ID



  • Beaumont Hospital
  • Health Professions Education Centre


BioMed Central


  • Published Version (Version of Record)