Elective Years 1 and 2: The Art of Observation

Department: Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine (AHHM), Undergraduate Medical Education

The Art of Observation:  Learning to See

**NOT OFFERED IN 2020-21**

Location: Various: Art Gallery of Alberta; Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry; University of Alberta Hospital

4 - 12 hours, over several months (January-March, 2019)


To sign up for Part 1 of this elective, go to https://goo.gl/forms/AQXow3ptAlqeyWyw1. To request additional information, contact the AHHM Program Coordinator by email (ahhm@ualberta.ca), or phone (780-492-0445).


This elective includes a 4-hour, visual literacy session at the Art Gallery of Alberta, along with two additional 4-hour arts-related components that have been designed to further the development of students' perceptual and observational skills.

COMPONENT 1 - "Rounding" at the Art Gallery of Alberta (4 hours, REQUIRED)

This elective component provides an opportunity for medical students to develop their appreciation of, and abilities related to visual observation, described as being at "the heart of clinical medicine" (Shapiro, 2006).

During this half-day workshop, usually scheduled in early January, students participate in a:

  1. large group, introductory session - students individually complete a brief written exercise which involves viewing two art reproductions and describing them; this is followed by a short lecture on "Ways of Seeing," presented by Dr. Peter Hamilton (providing a medical context for the workshop); AGA educators then introduce key visual literacy concepts, and four "frames of looking" for interacting with art: a) first response, b) breaking it down, c) time, place and space, and d) new meanings (1 hour),
  2. small group, Art Gallery of Alberta tour - AGA arts educators guide students in developing skills in close observation through interactive exercises and guided discussion aimed at honing their visual acuity and transforming more superficial or habitual approaches to "looking" into a more astute or sensitive "seeing," while engaging with various artworks and exhibits in the gallery (2 hours),
  3. large group, debriefing discussion (1 hour) - students are asked to again view and describe two art reproductions, then are invited share insights they experienced, and reflect on what they learned as a group (1 hour)

When the workshop concludes, students can continue to tour AGA exhibits if they like, on their own or with friends, or otherwise continue on with their day.

COMPONENT 2 - Seeing Beyond "What We Know" (4 hours, optional)

This elective component provides an opportunity for exploring how our cognitive frames of understanding can influence how, and what we understand in relation to what we experience.

We typically act on the basis of our pre-existing understandings of the world, which tends to affirm our personal "horizon(s) of understanding." By developing our ability to recognize, and imagine possibilities beyond this, it is possible to enhance our horizon(s) of understanding, which can lead to new insights, meanings, and change, as well as enhanced clinical encounters and healthcare outcomes (see Clark, 2008; Kumagai & Wear, 2014). Contemporary artists inquire into a range of concerns relevant to contemporary culture, including technological developments, as well as various ethical and moral concerns relevant to medicine, and their own and others' experience of illness and caring. Encompassing a range of fears, hopes and questions, contemporary art provides a rich resource for re-thinking the "familiar."

In this elective component, students will:

  1. attend two lectures related to art, culture and the body (offered as part of the AHHM Speaker Series, or the Visual Art and Design Forum (VADF) Speaker Series), jotting down their personal reflections, thoughts, questions and ideas, during and following each lecture they attend (2 hours),
  2. in advance of the group discussion that is scheduled at the end of this elective component, students will review their reflections and add new questions or insights they may have experienced in relation to illness and disease, as well as hopes and/or concerns they may have in relation to medicine broadly considered, following the lectures they attended,
  3. finally, they will share insights they experienced, and reflect on what they learned during the group debriefing discussion (1 hour).

COMPONENT 3 - "Drawing to See" (4 hours, optional)

In this component of the elective, students explore drawing not only as a way of describing what they are observing, but as a means of observing.

Students will:

  1. spend time visiting with and drawing a patient (with their permission), usually over two 1-hour sessions (2 hours),
  2. write a short reflection (~1 page) on their experience (1 hour),
  3. participate in an individual or group debriefing discussion in which they will share their drawings and reflect on what they learned (1 hour).

Students interested in this elective component are encouraged to arrange a meeting with Dr. Pamela Brett-MacLean.

For all three elective components, a pass/ fail grade will be assigned (as per the standard "Assessment of Elective Performance" form). Students will be invited to complete a feedback form to help the elective coordinators improve the various aspects of this elective experience for students in subsequent years.

  1. To develop heightened visual reflexivity leading to enhanced observational skills;
  2. To enhance awareness of, and challenge, one's habitual orientation and assumptions related to the visual domain (including differences that exist between 'looking" and processes of "seeing");
  3. To enhance appreciation of the diversity of possible interpretations (tolerance of ambiguity), and develop an enhanced "open and alert" awareness of the possibilities that exist in relation to responding to the needs of patients and their families as a health care practitioner.
Additional Notes:


The "Rounding" at the Art Gallery of Alberta component of this elective has a maximum enrolment of 25 participants. Depending on space, others within the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry (3rd and 4th year medical students, residents, students in other health professions education programs, and faculty) are invited to participate in the workshop on a non-credit basis (NB: a letter attesting to your participation can be provided).

This elective component is collaboratively organized between the AHHM Program and the 1st and 2nd year AHHM student representatives.

A $5 contribution is required to secure your registration, which will help to offset costs of refreshments that will be offered as part of the AGA educational tour.

You can learn about exhibits currently on view at the AGA by visiting http://www.youraga.ca.

"The Art of Observation: Learning to See" elective, along with other AHHM electives, exists to support medical students in broadening their intellectual and clinical/ practice-based horizons, in particular with respect to the intersections that exist between the arts and humanities in relation to medicine.

Medical students can complete more than one 12-hour elective in Year 1 and 2.

Optional reference resources:

  • Jonathan Berger's "Ways of Seeing" BBC video series; available at http://www.ubu.com/film/berger_seeing.html.
  • Bleakley A, Farrow R, Gould D, & Marshall R. (2003). Making sense of clinical reasoning: Judgement and the evidence of the senses. Medical Education, 37(6), 544-552.
  • Clark J. (2008). Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: A fusion of horizons. British Journal of General Practice58(546), 58-60.
  • Kumagai AK, & Wear D. (2014). "Making strange": A role for the humanities in medical education. Academic Medicine89(7), 973-977.
  • Shapiro J, Rucker L, & Beck J. (2006). Training the clinical eye and mind: Using the arts to develop medical students' observational and pattern recognition skills. Medical Education40(3), 263-268.
  • Wellbery C, & McAteer RA. (2015). The art of observation: A pedagogical framework. Academic Medicine90(12), 1624-1630.
Last Updated: September 7, 2018