Kahil’s Journey — Healer’s Quest

Role Playing Medical Learning

Kahil was a former Jordanian soldier born in Palestine. He had immigrated to Canada to escape conflict and had gained admission to the nursing program I was teaching in. I would speak with him between classes sometimes, back in the days I smoked, we smoked together during break and he told me about his life, how the Palestinian soldiers were made to work on the front lines of combat and suffered the most. He despised his former life and was eager to become someone who could heal, not hurt.

Kahil entered my physiology course in the nursing degree program, which was being taught using lecture and multiple choice exams. His English was not strong yet, he struggled with the content and finally ended the course with a hard fought “C” grade. His work was marginal at best, at times as I graded his papers I was afraid he would fail. There was some kind of mis-match between this resourceful, capable man I knew as a student and his abhorrent exam performance.

During the next term, I had permission to “gamify” my entire physiology course by turning it into a role playing game, with a 20 page manual. The game was called “Healer’s Quest” and I had received funding to hire 2 teaching assistants to help run the game version. Briefly, the students were divided into groups of 6, and they selected case studies in emergency medicine each week to solve. They would review the case, request additional data about the patient, and then head off to do their own research on an aspect of the case. The course ran 2 nights a week, so they would return the next session and teach each other the relevant findings of the case using the Merck Manual and their textbooks.

The entire course was divided into rounds of play. Students had limited healing points, treatment points and leveling points to manage, as each group member took on a “role”, such as pharmacist, specialist, imaging expert, and they gained new abilities such as higher level diagnostic tests as they leveled their character up. The grades were derived from a multiple choice test and the sum of quizzes they wrote, each quiz also conferred a leveling point to the group, which they could spend to increase their range of medical tests and procedures to use in-game.

What was most noteworthy, other than the entire class becoming immersed in the game and functioning like experienced physicians by the end of each term, were the changes I saw in Kahil. Kahil, matured by years of battle field experience, took on a leadership role in his group. When they reviewed an emergency medical case such as bleeding from the lungs, he showed extraordinary clarity and planning in his approach and guided the group toward solid diagnostic and treatment procedures. The group gelled and worked as a team and he came into his own. They saved dozens of virtual “patients”.

Kahil finished this course with a grade of B+, an impressive increase in his grade, considering that he barely completed the lecture version of physiology. It was not only his grade increase which impressed me, but how the gamified training system had brought out his abilities. It unlocked his potential, by creating a simulation which drew upon his decision-making, knowledge acquisition and critical path creation. He functioned like a field medic, drawing upon his life experiences and connecting with the group to form a working bond. The group had synergy and it was in no small part due to Kahil’s kind, patient leadership, steeped in his rich life experience.

The gamification of medical education in this case, unlocked his innate curiosity and ability to navigate information. With passive learning, he barely was noticed, and fought to simply complete the course. With active gamified learning he emerged as a great healer who would now go on to use this new found confidence and clinical skill throughout his upcoming career as a nurse. I often remember him.

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