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Being Mortal and Intentional: Lessons of Virtual Learning in a Student-Led Medical School Course

Henry Bair (@_HenryBair_) and Paul Horak


Since our first year of medical school, we have directed three cycles of a highly interactive seminar course titled, Being Mortal. The course aims to address educational gaps in the standard medical school curriculum related to various aspects of aging, end-of-life care, and serious illness conversations. Over 10 weeks, we cover such topics as the health economics of long-term care, biochemical processes of aging, advance directives, palliative and hospice care, and the role of spirituality.

The course content is difficult for some students to process and discuss, requiring the development of a psychologically safe learning environment. There was a pressing concern for us to create a classroom space in which students felt comfortable to share and connect with one another. We therefore emphasized several deliberately-designed, community-building features of the course. We encouraged students to use reflective practice to link course content with their personal experiences and interests, and we included classroom activities that engaged students with our faculty guest speakers.


The shift to virtual learning left us debating the merits of offering the course at all. The COVID-19 pandemic led to rapid changes in medical education, most notably with a widespread shift to online learning. Educational experiences aimed at teaching interpersonal communication skills presented numerous challenges from virtual learning. Still, we forged ahead with an online version of our seminar, delivered through Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform.

We learned 5 important lessons about leading an online seminar course focused on interpersonal communication skills and peer learning. Virtual courses demand more from instructors. In our experience, the planning, execution, and follow-through necessary to teach a high-quality online course took more time and effort than our in-person seminars. These extra challenges required us to be very intentional—toward fostering community, keeping students engaged, using the many tools of Zoom, knowing one’s limits, and so much more.

1. Deliberately design your online ‘classroom’ experience to foster rich student connections.

2. Prep your speakers for virtual teaching.

3. Adjust your teaching for the limitations of virtual platforms.

4. Embrace the experimental.

5. Leverage the strengths of Zoom but keep it simple.


A virtual platform forced us to be more intentional in our teaching and fostered more experimentation in pedagogy than previous iterations of the course. By the end of our seminar, we were surprised that we could execute a complex, patient-centered course without ever meeting our students or the other lecturers in person.

Although we look forward to a return to in-person classes, our experience taught us that there may be benefits to virtual learning that should not be forgotten. For us, these included opportunities to experiment with different speakers and teaching styles, new discussion formats and community-building techniques, convenience, and scalability. In the future, we plan to have hybrid in-person and virtual seminars to leverage the best features of both ways of teaching.


About the authors: Henry Bair and Paul Horak are medical students at Stanford School of Medicine. This piece was a writing assignment on curriculum design in the course, Advances in Medical Education.

Edited by: Michael A. Gisondi, MD is Vice Chair of Education in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford School of Medicine. He teaches the course, Advances in Medical Education. Twitter: @MikeGisondi

Header image: Angel of Grief, Campus of Stanford University. Credit: M. Gisondi

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. For more details on our site disclaimers, please see our ‘About’ page

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