The course in Medical Genetics at the University of Copenhagen is a first-year course for future doctors and dentists. Anne Nørremølle has been teaching the course for 20 years and is a Lecturer in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology. In 2015, a former student introduced her to Labster and as a professor that has always been focused on innovative teaching methods she wanted to see how Labster could answer some of her problems.
The course in Medical Genetics consists of lectures, classroom teaching, and two lab exercises. At the time, Anne was looking for a way to give her students exposure to advanced lab techniques for one of the lab exercises: “This exercise is far more complicated than the other because the experiments that you have to do take time and are expensive. We couldn’t do it in real life and that’s why the virtual part was really interesting for us”.
Anne began collaborating with Labster to help ensure that simulations would address specific pedagogical concerns for medical students. With the guidance of Anne and her colleagues, the simulations created for the University of Copenhagen (KU) focus on case studies and provide students with an opportunity to collaborate.
Collaboration in Virtual Learning Environments
The way KU has implemented Labster as an in-class tool has allowed for student collaboration. “When they do the simulation together they discuss a lot with each other and they work together. We try to encourage them to work together, and I love it when the whole class is buzzing with activity.”
“When they do the simulation together they discuss a lot with each other and they work together. We try to encourage them to work together, and I love it when the whole class is buzzing with activity.”
Students in Anne’s medical genetics course use the theory, quiz questions, and case stories as a point of discussion. Anne explained the way students utilize Labster for discussion, “they discuss a lot because there are quiz questions they have to answer. They like to ask each other ‘what do you think’. And then when they get to the point where they are analyzing data they start discussing and try to get to a conclusion together.”
Beyond the content in Labster, students also end up helping each other with the technical aspects of virtual simulations. As Anne described, “And apart from the discussion, they help each other a lot with the actual playing of the simulation. They ask each other for help if they can’t find something or how to handle the lab equipment virtually.”
The Importance of Case Stories for Medical Students
‘Morning conferences’ are briefings for doctors on patient histories and their current medical issues. It is a normal occurrence for doctors and Anne starts preparing students for these conferences by using case stories. Normally, during the medical genetics course, Anne uses printouts of case stories where students learn the history and the current medical problems of the patient. With Labster, Anne is able to bring this experience to life for students by using simulations.
“What you have to do with the medical students is use a case story alongside the theory and skills we are teaching because it turns the sometimes complicated theory into something they can relate to. We work a lot in case stories in the rest of the classroom teaching. But the fact that you could do this on a computer, in a simulation, I thought that was cool – and so do the students.”
Anne describes the importance of case stories and student connection to the patients. “I hear some reactions like, ‘oh, now I’m taking a sample of the amniotic fluid whoo, whoo.’ I think they get involved and they really want to get to the end to get to the results, too. I feel that most of them are really interested in getting to know the diagnosis and prognosis of these virtual patients. It’s a virtual couple so it doesn’t really matter, but they become invested in finding the answers.”
The purpose of combining lab work with case stories in the course is to help students understand the technique and processes of the lab work that they won’t be exposed to as doctors. As Anne says, “I think they get a better understanding of the link between the problem and the analysis. We have to look at, in the simulation we use, the chromosomes of this fetus because there seems to be something wrong. By going to the lab and actually doing the analyses, they will know exactly what these analyses tell us about the chromosomes. This helps them understand how to read the results.”
“I think they get a better understanding of the link between the problem and the analysis”
“The most important thing for a doctor to know is what kind of technique to use to answer a question and what limitations there are for each technique. What pitfalls are there in each technique and are there any situations where they will not get a proper answer out of the technique. This becomes something we focus on also because we know that they are going to be that person that checks off a box saying I want this analysis and then they have to know whether they chose correctly or not. They need to know if they actually will get an answer to their problem.”
Student Reactions to Virtual Labs
Students in the medical genetics course have had positive reactions to using the virtual simulations alongside their in-lab experiences. Anne explains why the students enjoy Labster: “what they reacted to very positively was the fact that it mimics the real world in the fact that it’s a case story in which we use up to date techniques – the same as they use at the large hospital next door.”
Finally, Anne notes that it is important to consider how virtual simulations are introduced to the students. In Anne’s case, she sees the value in using virtual simulations and conveys this to the students. As she says, “They are positive about it, but we do also do all we can to introduce it as a mandatory part of the course in which they get a chance to work with and learn about these very important assays and concepts – as something that they need to know for the exam and for their future work as doctors or dentists.”