Creating Spaces for Collaborative Learning at Medical Schools

Written by 
Sasha Rappaport
 and 
  —  
January 18, 2023
Two students studying an x-ray image

The power of collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is impactful because it incorporates a heutagogical approach to the learning environment. It encourages students to observe how others learn, create shared meaning, and reflect and think about what they learned and how to apply it in “the real world.” This helps take students from competency in the skills and knowledge they acquire to being capable of reproducing what they have learned in novel or unfamiliar situations.

Mural is a space that can facilitate self-directed collaborative learning with the goal of creating more capable students. Using Mural’s intuitive digital whiteboard and collaboration features, students can work together from anywhere. I was excited to talk with Dr. Dominic Wiredu Boakye of the University of Exeter Medical School about how Mural has impacted the modules he teaches within the medical science, neuroscience, and BMBS Medicine programs. Read on to get his perspective on creating spaces for collaborative learning — and how Mural helps.

Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Getting started with Mural in the classroom

Sasha: Can you tell me a bit about how you started using Mural at the Medical School?

Dr. Wiredu Boakye: The modules I teach are predominantly taught face-to-face in small group sessions, usually eight to 10 students, facilitated by a member of our staff. Students come together to work on problem-based activities or on research projects. 

The pandemic was the driving force that raised awareness of Mural, but the Medical Science program had been using something like it for several years. When Mural came along, it seemed to be a more suitable option as it permits live, collaborative online editing, whereas the other application did not. Having a space where students can see and engage with what was happening in real time, even when they were not together in the classroom, was great. Now [that] we are back in person, it still makes sense to continue to use Mural as a collaborative tool. Even when we collaborate on a physical whiteboard in person, we take photos and add them to a Mural canvas that becomes an archive of the work, and students can now engage with it digitally.

I was initially introduced to Mural by a colleague who teaches year 2 modules at the Medical School. It made sense to introduce year 1 students to the same collaborative tool that they would go on to use in year 2. Because it has been so intuitive to learn, Mural has quickly expanded across several modules in the Medical School. It has made sense to have students get used to one specific collaborative tool across the program they are enrolled in.

How medical students use Mural for collaborative learning

Sasha: Can you share an example of how you use Mural for collaborative learning in your modules?

Dr. Wiredu Boakye: One of the modules I lead heavily relies on students going through Problem Based Learning cycles in Mural. I have small groups of 10 students with a dedicated mural [whiteboard] they use collaboratively. To facilitate this process, each mural is pre-sectioned in advance into the various stages of the Problem Based Learning process.

Students access their dedicated mural and begin by exploring a medically-related trigger (this is usually a video or a paragraph describing a patient’s medical history). This is where Mural really comes to life, because students can use sticky notes and connectors to create interactive and easy to manipulate mind maps on concepts they have found within the trigger. Students have found the color coding function for sticky notes useful for annotating concepts they have or do not have prior knowledge on. 

Endocrine and signaling mind map

Following this, students proceed to another section of the Mural dedicated to setting SMART questions on concepts they have identified [as not having] prior knowledge on. Students then go away and use the SMART questions to guide their self-directed learning and research. They compile their answers and upload them directly into the mural. This allows students to share their findings with other members of the group.

The “add comment” function allows students to comment on each other's uploads and engage in discussions with each other. Facilitators can then see a list of comments and their associated contributor’s name, which provides an avenue for assessment and quantifying student engagement. In summary, for the Problem Based Learning cycle, students explore a problem, set questions on the problem, answer the questions and share their findings, and collaborate throughout with Mural as the focal point.

“Students explore a problem, set questions on the problem, answer the questions and share their findings, and collaborate throughout with Mural as the focal point.”

The use of crowdsourced, annotated concept maps in small group learning to steer students towards the core focus of the module syllabus is an award-winning teaching practice that was established years before the arrival of Mural. However, the multifunctionality of Mural and its intuitive nature ultimately elevates the student experience within this long-established teaching technique. It is no wonder that, although it was originally used in a single year 2 module, it has rapidly gained popularity across the Medical Science program. Arguably, the word “Mural” has become synonymous with collaborative work among the student body.

Sasha: Are there unexpected ways Mural has impacted the modules you teach?

Dr. Wiredu Boakye: Yes, on top of a collaborative space, I use Mural to replace the websites we used for whole modules. In the past, we would create a website for a specific module with links and drop-downs that would display various aspects of the module. What is useful in Mural is that you can zoom in and out, which allows you to start with a birds-eye view of the module, then zoom in to see sessions in a specific week, and then zoom in again to see the exact details of the session.

In some cases, there are links to other tools or spaces for student work. When there is collaborative work, there are links that direct students to collaborative murals. Students can get a broad view and then zoom in and see the exact experiments that they are doing, all within one space and platform. Mural replicates how you actually think about something in your brain, starting broad and then focusing on specific aspects. The infinite zoom in Mural makes the experience more intuitive and easier to engage with for students.

“Mural replicates how you actually think about something in your brain, starting broad and then focusing on specific aspects.”
Project timeline in Mural

I have also found inspiration by looking through the templates that Mural has. It has helped me discover that if there is a set process involved with what the students need to do in their learning process and there is collaboration involved, Mural is a great space to facilitate and visualize the steps. If you are involved in any teaching activity that has several steps, or cascades, and involves collaboration and creativity of any sort, then Mural is a perfect tool for it.

“If you are involved in any teaching activity that … involves collaboration and creativity of any sort, then Mural is a perfect tool for it.”

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About the author

About the authors

Sasha Rappaport

Sasha Rappaport

Sasha is the Transformation Manager for Education and Non-profits at MURAL. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two boys and works as a community organizer when he isn't outside hanging with the fam.