Background: Simulation in medical education provides students with opportunities to practice interviews, examinations, and diagnosis formulation related to complex conditions without risks to patients. Aim: To examine differences between individual and team participation on learning outcomes and student perspectives through use of virtual patients (VPs) for teaching cranial nerve (CN) evaluation. Methods: Fifty-seven medical students were randomly assigned to complete simulation exercises either as individuals or as members of three-person teams. Students interviewed, examined, and diagnosed VPs with possible CN damage in the Neurological Exam Rehearsal Virtual Environment (NERVE). Knowledge of CN abnormalities was assessed pre-and post-simulation. Student perspectives of system usability were evaluated post-simulation. Results: An aptitude-treatment interaction (ATI) effect was detected; at pre-test scores ≤ 50%, students in teams scored higher (83%) at post-test than did students as individuals (62%, p = 0.02). Post-simulation, students in teams reported greater confidence in their ability to diagnose CN abnormalities than did students as individuals (p = 0.02; mean rating = 4.0/5.0 and 3.4/5.0, respectively). Conclusion: The ATI effect allows us to begin defining best practices for the integration of VP simulators into the medical curriculum. We are persuaded to implement future NERVE exercises with small teams of medical students.
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