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Reinvigorating learners using ‘lived experience’ perspectives

26 Nov 2021 | Dr Jessica Fletcher Dr Jessica Fletcher, a lecturer at Swansea University, shares her experience of embedding patient stories in undergraduate teaching, and shares how you can do the same to reinvigorate learner passion and focus for their studies.

When the third year of undergraduate study comes around, students can easily get bogged down balancing multiple assignments, applying for jobs, and impending final exams, so much so that they sometimes lose focus on the real reasons why they are at university. Here I share my journey of embedding a ‘lived experience’ session into my teaching to reinvigorate students’ passion for their studies.

What is the ‘lived experience’?

Academics are often considered the ‘experts’ in their field, based on years of study and scholarly activity, though often teach about topics on which they have no first-hand experience. In my field, I teach students about a variety of human diseases, yet very rarely (if ever) have I experienced these diseases myself. Though I possess the knowledge, skills, and necessary qualifications to teach this subject, simply teaching about the life altering side effects of medication, for example, is distinctly different to the level of insight and knowledge that could be conveyed from experiencing these side effects first-hand. As such, it is important to look outside of the academic environment and invite ‘experts by experience’ (e.g., patients or members of the public) who have this first-hand experience, to enrich our teaching.

Embedding ‘lived experience’ in my teaching

In 2019, I began developing a new third-year undergraduate module on Cancer Pharmacology; a distinctly ‘science’-based module requiring that students develop a deep understanding of the intricate molecular mechanisms of anti-cancer drugs. My knowledge in this area rested not only on my background in cancer research and my experience working in a hospital, but on my personal experience of having a family member who experienced cancer. Upon reflection, it was clear that my personal experience enriched my appreciation of the topic, and I came to realise that many students may not have had similar experiences. My goal became to develop a module in which the students were not only able to explain the complex science but were connected to the ‘human’ element of the topic as well. I reached out to Tenovus Cancer Care, Wales’ leading cancer charity, who recruited two patients with cancer to speak with students on the module.

A ‘cleanse for the soul’: Student reflections on the ‘lived experience’ session

Held live in 2020, and online in 2021, speakers from Tenovus gave a no-holds-barred account of their experience of cancer therapy. They shared stories of the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis and the life-altering side effects, but also the hope they experienced borne from the care they received from the NHS, and the love and support received from family and friends. The session was highly emotional; tears of sorrow brought on by listening to details of the patient’s harrowing experience, but also tears of joy at hearing the speakers reflect on the ways their experience had changed their life for the better. The speakers allowed the students to ask questions; students asked how the patient’s religious faith helped them through and what advice the patients could give to students who one day wanted to be doctors and support patients like them.

The student response to the session was overwhelmingly positive:

“The session with Tenovus was not only informative but important as a reminder that it’s not just about science, although that’s interesting, but it’s about how cancer and treatments affect real people and their families. It was very thought provoking and conveyed a really important message”.

“The Tenovus charity meeting had the most impact on my learning and this was something that I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate. It made me realise why we’re learning what we are, and the importance of it towards patients”.

Indeed, one student described the session as a ‘cleanse for their soul’, reminding them that all the hard work and turmoil of the past few years of study was worth it for the impact they hope to have in their future career.

How to enrich your teaching with ‘lived experience’

Outside of the scope of medical science, there are wonderful opportunities for embedding ‘lived experience’ sessions in your teaching. Many charities and organisations have public or patient representatives who routinely give talks at fundraising events, offering an excellent source for recruiting these ‘experts by experience’. It is important to remember however that ‘lived experience’ sessions are, by their nature, inherently emotional and may touch on experiences students have had themselves. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of students’ emotions and ensure that support is available for students who may be affected by the content of the session.

I would love to know if you have used ‘lived experience’ in your teaching and, if not, in what ways you think this could enrich your teaching.


Jessica Fletcher is a lecturer at Swansea University, teaching on a variety of modules including ‘Communicating Medical Sciences’, ‘Cancer Pharmacology’, and ‘Teaching Science’. She is also an avid science communicator; you can see examples of her work on her website

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