Background: Virtual patients (VPs) offer valuable alternative encounters when live patients with rare conditions, such as cranial nerve (CN) palsies, are unavailable; however, little is known regarding simulation and optimal social learning context. Aim: Compare learning outcomes and perspectives between students interacting with VPs in individual and team contexts. Methods: Seventy-eight medical students were randomly assigned to interview and examine four VPs with possible CN damage either as individuals or in three-person teams, using Neurological Examination Rehearsal Virtual Environment (NERVE). Learning was measured through diagnosis accuracy and pre-/post-simulation knowledge scores. Perspectives of learning context were collected post-simulation. Results: Students in teams submitted correct diagnoses significantly more often than students as individuals for CN-IV (p = 0.04; team = 86.1%; individual = 65.9%) and CN-VI (p = 0.03; team = 97.2%; individual = 80.5%). Knowledge scores increased significantly in both contexts (p < 0.001); however, a significant aptitude-treatment interaction effect was observed (p = 0.04). At pre-test scores ≤25.8%, students in teams scored significantly higher (66.7%) than students as individuals (43.1%) at post-test (p = 0.03). Students recommended implementing future NERVE exercises in teams over five other modality-timing combinations. Conclusion: Results allow us to define best practices for integrating VP simulators into medical education. Implementing NERVE experiences in team environments with medical students in the future may be preferable.
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