Design principles for virtual patients: a focus group study among students

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This study aimed to examine what students perceive as the ideal features of virtual patient (VP) design in order to foster learning with a special focus on clinical reasoning.


A total of 104 Year 5 medical students worked through at least eight VPs representing four different designs during their paediatric clerkship. The VPs were presented in two modes and differed in terms of the authenticity of the user interface (with or without graphics support), predominant question type (long- versus short-menu questions) and freedom of navigation (relatively free versus predetermined). Each mode was presented in a rich and a poor version with regard to the use of different media and questions and explanations explicitly directed at clinical reasoning. Five groups of between four and nine randomly selected students (n = 27) participated in focus group interviews facilitated by a moderator using a questioning route. The interviews were videotaped, transcribed and analysed. Summary reports were approved by the students.


Ten principles of VP design emerged from the analysis. A VP should be relevant, of an appropriate level of difficulty, highly interactive, offer specific feedback, make optimal use of media, help students focus on relevant learning points, offer recapitulation of key learning points, provide an authentic web-based interface and student tasks, and contain questions and explanations tailored to the clinical reasoning process.


Students perceived the design principles identified as being conducive to their learning. Many of these principles are supported by the results of other published studies. Future studies should address the effects of these principles using quantitative controlled designs.

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