Master's research project

The design and development of an effective interactive module to teach the fundamentals of psychoneuroimmunology to medical school students

Overview of the study

Medical schools are moving from curriculums based on analyzing each system individually to a more integrative approach with an emphasis on treating the body as a holistic entity, each biological system influencing the other (Horrigan, 2012). As both biomedical science and medical education embrace greater integration of knowledge across many disciplines, new resources and materials need to reflect this growing interdisciplinary content. One example is the relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) that studies the effects of psychological distress on the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, integrating a dozen biomedical disciplines (Massey & Vedhara, 2015; Pariante, 2015). Currently, few educational materials focus on PNI directly. Those available lack visuals and are essentially collections of research papers that do little to integrate key information (Vedhara & Irwin, 2005).

This project will investigate how to best present the fundamentals of PNI to medical students in the context of an online interactive learning module. The e-learning module will contain a write up of the biological basis of PNI, which will be accompanied by images and interactives. Users will be presented with a general overview of the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. Then, users will learn about how these systems can all be affected by psychological distress. A focus will be placed on the regulation of immune cell activity by the stress hormone cortisol.

Purpose of the study

Overview of the immune system. Users can toggle between viewing cells in the innate or adaptive systems. Clicking each cell type will bring up an information box on that specific cell and provide a histology image.

Currently, the instructional design community is building best practices for effective multimodal education, and developing practical approaches and tools to master this paradigm (Clark & Mayer, 2008; Gregory, 2015). This project seeks to incorporate new pedagogical strategies and practical tools from the instructional design practice into a PNI specific visual multimodal educational resource. It will explore methods and investigate best practices in summarizing a vast array of scientific studies into a cohesive online, interactive, media rich learning environment.

This research project involves the design and creation of an integrated e-learning module on the subject of PNI with future implications that it will provide benefit for medical students in attaining knowledge of core concepts of this broad and often fragmented subject matter. The module will contain images, text information, and a variety of interactives. Static images will provide visual representations of the physiology and accompanying text information will provide the user with supplemental information. The interactives will include drag and drop illustrations, click and reveal triggers, and slider interactives, which will help clarify the PNI related subject matter in an engaging way.

Research question and hypothesis

How can instructional design and digital educational tools be combined to create an interactive e-learning module on the biological basis of psychoneuroimmunology? 

Figure: Interactive slider that displays the mechanism of action of glucocorticoids. Users can move the slider back and forth, which allows a self-paced learning environment. 


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers for multimedia learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Gregory, J. (2015). The millenial, multimodal learning, and new opportunities for medical illustrators. Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH.

Horrigan, B. J. (2012). Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to address the behavioral determinants of health. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing8(5), 266–267.

Massey, A. J., & Vedhara, K. (2015). Psychoneuroimmunology. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences19, 445–450.

Pariante, C. (2015). Psychoneuroimmunology or immunopsychiatry? The Lancet Psychiatry2(3), 197–199.

Vedhara, K., & Irwin, M. (Eds.). (2005). Human psychoneuroimmunology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.