Who learns more: Those who do, or those who just watch?
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Who learns more: Those who do, or those who just watch?

It’s an article of faith that hands-on learning has a lot more impact than just sitting back and watching.

By extension, most people just assume that e-learning modules work better when they’re interactive, that simulations are more effective than presentations, and that you’ll learn more from performing in a role play than from watching one.

Well, not so fast. A recent study offers evidence that “vicarious” learning experiences – watching versus doing – can be highly effective.

In some cases, they may actually be more effective than hands-on learning, especially for high-level soft skills.

The research
Medical-education researchers set up a 30-minute role-play between a medical student playing a doctor and someone chosen to simulate patient responses.

The goal was to elicit information about the “patient’s” medical condition,
which required soft skills such as empathy, guiding the conversation, listening for key details, and asking good questions.

In one set of simulations, a medical student conducted the interview while another observed. Then there was a feedback session. Then the participant and observer switched.

The researchers were trying to determine:

  • whether students learned more from doing or watching;
  • whether it was better to observe first and then do, or vice versa, and
  • whether students learned more if they were given a script to study first.

The results
At various points in the study, researchers debriefed the students to see what they’d learned.

Those who’d observed the role plays learned more than those who’d performed. They provided more accurate, useful feedback during the debriefing session.

The researchers also found that the order didn’t matter. Whether observers went first or second, they consistently performed better.

In addition, the study found that scripts helped the participants elicit more useful information and guide the conversation more effectively.

Here are some suggestions for applying this research:

  1. Don’t assume that vicarious learning is inferior. There’s a place for interactivity and learning-by-doing, but they’re not always the right option.
  2. A little detachment can be a good thing. When we’re in the thick of things, we’re sometimes too busy to see how we’re doing. It may be easier to see what others are doing right or wrong than to see it in ourselves.
  3. In role plays, give people the opportunity to observe. If you have everyone practicing and nobody watching, participants will miss some things.
  4. Scripts matter. Offer best-practice scripts for role plays whenever possible. That will avoid “easy errors” in conversation and get the role play into deeper territory more quickly.

Stegman, K. et al. (2012). Vicarious learning during simulations: Is it more effective than hands on learning? Medical Education 46(10), 1001-8.

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