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Monday, 13 October 2014

Can cartoons teach medical students to be better doctors?

Still from one of my animations using  GoAnimate! 

Around three years ago now, I took on a new teaching commitment, to deliver a "Masterclass ILA", (Inquiry Based Learning Activity), for our Year 3 and 4 students at the Medical School at University of Sheffield.

The aim of this short course was to help students develop the skills to have difficult conversations with patients about how decisions are made on which drugs should be funded on the NHS and why some drugs which can be life-extending are not considered "cost-effective".

Given the overall aim of the course , I needed to find a method of assessment that would enable the students to demonstrate to me that they had developed their communication skills and their knowledge of health economic decision-making. The obvious route to go down here would have been some kind of role-play scenario, as medical students are often assessed in this way, and it would be a familiar format to them. However, when attempting to book rooms for the course, it quickly became clear that a room with a suitable amount of space for them to act out their role-plays wasn't available, and also, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted the students to be able to watch themselves and assess their own performance as well as that of the fellow students.

After having seen a demonstration of free online animation tool (, the germ of an idea began to form. I looked at various online animation tools, and eventually decided to use "GoAnimate"- A free online animation tool that looked relatively easy to use and had an overall style that I thought the students would enjoy.

Having spent a couple of days learning how to use "GoAnimate", I quickly realised that I wouldn't be able to ask the students to create their own animations, as the time they would need to invest in learning it was simply too great. So I decided instead to give the students each a question, posed to them by a patient, based on a real life scenario that we have been using throughout the course. They wrote a script for a consultation with the patient, during which they attempted to relay to the patient, in an empathetic style and using  lay terminology, the answer to their question. I would then produce an animated version of the consultation myself, and we would then watch these as a group in the final session of the course, and the students would be asked to comment both on their own work and that of their fellow students.

When I first broached this to the students, I will admit that they were rather taken aback, though intrigued. It took longer than I expected to create the animations (12 of them in all), but the final session was successful and fun. Understandably the students were rather amused by seeing themselves as animated characters, but also enjoyed watching the scrips being read by the patient and doctor
 characters, and from the feedback they gave it was clear that once they heard their scripts being spoken by the characters, they could see both the strengths and weaknesses in what they had written- which was exactly what I had hoped for.

Having spoken about this with various colleagues over the last couple of years, most people are intrigued but rather surprised, and perhaps a little concerned that there could be any place for 'cartoons' in the medical curriculum. I was delighted therefore to read a story on the BBC news website around a year ago now about a doctor who had used comic book techniques in their own teaching with medical students, to great success! You can read more about it here:

I've now run this course three times, and my animation is getting better... I also pair the students now, so there's only six animations to prepare, which makes it a little easier on me. The animations are uploaded to YouTube as "unlisted" videos, and the students are given the link to the video so they can watch it again later, show their friends, etc.

It did require a small investment of time, around two days in total, to master the animation tool, but it has been very rewarding to use animation in an assessment context, and I would recommend it to anybody who might otherwise use role-play techniques as a form of assessment. Of course you can also use animation to give feedback, and I did exactly this, as I thought it was only fair that if I was animating the students, I should animate myself. So I'll give myself the final word, by showing you my animated self, feeding back to most recent  group of students:

Posted by Claire

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