Experiential learning methods enhance medical students' communication skills

Experiential learning methods can be useful in teaching communication skills to medical students, according to University Lecturer Jonna Koponen’s recent doctoral dissertation. The research material was collected from a pilot course carried out at the University of Eastern Finland. The dissertation was published at the University of Tampere.

The study focused on professionally-oriented communication education in the field of medicine. There has been expansive research on communication education in the field of medicine since 1980s. However, in the field of speech communication in Finland medical students’ communication education has not been widely studied.

Previous research on communication education in the field of medicine has shown that experiential learning methods are more effective in teaching communication skills than instructional methods. Nowadays experiential methods such as simulated patients (SP) and role-play are widely used in communication education. However, there is a lack of studies comparing medical students’ perceptions and the use and the effect of different experiential methods on learning interpersonal communication competence.

In 2006 a pilot course in communication for second-year medical students was developed in co-operation with a speech communication lecturer and clinical lecturers.

The researchers explored second-year medical students’ perceptions of three experiential learning methods, their attitudes to learning communication skills and their self-reported learning outcomes in three groups using different experiential methods: SPs, role-play, and Theatre in Education (TIE). The methods were introduced on a pilot course in communication. 132 students were randomly assigned to three groups where TIE method, SPs and role-play were used. Data were collected by questionnaire, three focus group interviews and a translated version of the Communication Skills Attitude Scale. Data were analyzed using SPSS version 17.0. Open-ended questions and focus group interviews were analyzed using qualitative content analysis and crosscase analysis.

The results showed that the most students (84 %) in each group found these methods suitable for learning interpersonal communication competence. There were no statistically significant differences in students’ perceptions. According to the students, these three methods had five special elements in common: the doctor’s role, the patient’s role, reflective participation, emotional reactions and teachers’ actions. The students’ self-reported learning outcomes were communication skills, knowledge of doctor-patient communication, patient-centeredness, and becoming aware of interpersonal communication competence. A few students reported no learning outcomes. These self-reported learning outcomes were similar in the three groups. The medical students’ attitudes to learning communication skills became more positive during the pilot course. There were no significant differences in students’ attitudes in the three groups before or after the course. The aims of the pilot course were achieved.

Reflection of the results showed that these experiential learning methods offer three different participation levels for learning interpersonal communication competence. These are: observing and analyzing doctor-patient interaction, reflecting on problematic interaction with peers during the exercise and reflecting on the action after the exercise, and being in the doctor’s role. In addition, a safe learning atmosphere supported learning with these experiential methods.

For further information, please contact: University Lecturer Jonna Koponen, jonnapauliina.koponen@uef.fi

Publishing year: 2012

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