Is interactive always better? Hands-on modules are great when teaching technical skills—such as Photoshop or programming—but what about nuanced topics like effective communication or price negotiation?

A recent study suggests that certain subjects benefit more from “vicarious” learning. Sometimes watching trumps doing.

Watch and learn

The study looked at doctor-patient interviews. Successful patient interviews require several complex skills, including thoughtful questioning, recognizing key details, and displaying empathy.

Researchers set up 30-minute simulations between medical students and trained actors portraying patients. During the simulations, one student conducted the interview while a second student observed. After a feedback session, the students switched roles. 

The researchers wanted to determine what factors improved their performance. They focused on:

  1. Whether students learned more by watching or by doing
  2. Whether watching and then doing—or the reverse—was better
  3. Whether providing a script in advance for students to study would boost performance

At several points during the study, students were debriefed on what they learned. When the simulations were complete, the researchers found that:

  1. Students learned more by watching than doing
  2. The order—observing first or second—didn’t matter
  3. Studying the script helped students perform better

Vicarious learning—that is, watching—actually promoted a greater understanding of doctor-patient communication skills than doing. During the debriefs, the observers provided more accurate and practical feedback than their active counterparts. Additionally, studying the scripts in advance yielded better outcomes.

Both the vicarious learning and the scripts probably succeeded for the same reason: They allowed the learner to step out of the interaction and therefore analyze it with greater detachment. The “doers” were more focused on their own performance, making it harder to see the big picture.


So how can we apply this study to eLearning? Here are some steps to consider.

  1. Evaluate your topic. As mentioned earlier, interactivity is well-suited for certain subject matter. But if your topic is a soft skill—one based on best practices and rules of thumb—a vicarious learning experience could be more effective.
  2. Ask: Could detachment help your learners? In some learning experiences, the complexity, effort, and stress of performing a new skill inhibits our ability to learn. If you think this might be the case, consider a vicarious learning design. Build a scenario-based module where learners can observe the new skill being performed. Create examples with characters that will resonate with your audience. You can choose to demonstrate the skill being performed correctly, or create a scenario in which a character makes mistakes and ask learners to identify them. 
  3. Ask learners to practice and share. Present learners with a scenario and ask them to practice the skill. Have them record their response on audio or video and upload it to share with their peers. The doers will benefit from the practice and the viewers will learn from watching their peers in action.
  4. Scripts can help. While scripts won’t be useful for every topic, when appropriate they can increase learners’ understanding. They give learners a chance to study the interaction instead of simply experiencing it.    


Stegmann, Karsten, et al. “Vicarious Learning During Simulations: Is It More Effective Than Hands-on Learning?” Medical Education, 46(10). 2012.