How My Wilderness First Aid Class Used Meta-Learning And Gamification To Make One Of The Best Classes I've Ever Taken

How My Wilderness First Aid Class Used Meta-Learning And Gamification To Make One Of The Best Classes I've Ever Taken
Photo by Mathurin NAPOLY / matnapo / Unsplash

In four days we were expected to be able to be put in any wilderness setting and save any number of potentially dying people whether it be from drowning, wounds and burns, allergies, thermoregulation, toxins, lightning, weather, trauma, heart problems, and more.

Four days of 10 hour intense work...

Needless to say, I was a little skeptical on how this was going to be done. But after finishing the course today, it's one of the best classes I have even taken. Period.

The two biggest reasons are because of how effectively it tied together meta-learning and gamification principles.

But before we get into how, why did I want to take this course in the first place?

I have long loved the outdoors. My parents are both exercise phenoms and growing up we lived in a rural area about a four hour drive from in my opinion the most beautiful mountain range on the East Coast, The Adirondacks. Alongside frequent hikes and camping up there we often did trips in other nature places like Yellowstone, The Teatons, and Saint Johns. This combined with me getting into backcountry cooking, and planning a month long backpacking trip with friends this summer, made me want to have some first aid experience in case we get in a bind. If we encounter a bear, my plan is still to just run faster than them, but I mean the other binds.

So with zero medical background, I took the class.

Or what I thought was zero medical background, because this ties into the first point about meta-learning the two class instructors Alice, and Marianne handled wonderfully.


From the very start of class the teachers made one thing clear: we did have medical knowledge.

We have lived on this planet for whatever amount of years, and unless we have done so under a rock, we know some common sense.

For example, if someone's got hives all over and a scratchy throat after eating something, what's likely the problem? Allergies.

If someone is shivering, and has a blue face, what's the problem? Hypothermia.

If someone has intense stomach pain and hasn't gone to the bathroom? As much as they would like to say it's a fever, it's probably constipation.

By revealing to us our background medical knowledge, the instructors immediately made us feel more confident about the insane amount of stuff we were going to learn. Then, they asked us what our goals for the class were. We created a list of everything we hoped to be able to do by the end. By doing this, they gave us a stake in our learnings and showed they cared about our opinions--one of the best ways to promote intrinsic motivation to learn.

Once we actually started into lessons they did a wonderful job making the lessons universal. They gave the lessons in a visual format, written format, audible format, and kinesthetic format. This gave everyone a different way of processing the information if they didn't understand it through one way. And essentially, they didn't overload us with information we didn't need in the moment.

On day one, we learned about rolling people. We were shown two ways of rolling and then practiced them. But they didn't show us how to move a patient by carrying them until day four. Why didn't they show them at the same time if they are both about moving? Because it would have been overwhelming! At every step of the course, the instructors made sure not to give too much information at once.

We got frequent breaks every 45 minutes to an hour for five-ten minutes giving us time to rest from the incredible amount of information we were giving. And the teachers did great switching between activities. We were never sitting or moving for more than an hour at a time. This ensured we applied our knowledge from lecture right after learning. This follows this principle of just-in-time-learning rather than just-in-case.

Their feedback was incredible too. Great feedback has four components:
1. Affirm what people did well. Effort, not talent.
2. Correct and direct: don't tell students the answer, bring them through their thinking process so they uncover the mistake themselves
3. Point out the process of the learning
4. Coaching students to critique their own efforts

They followed this to a tea. During one activity I was taking the pulse and respirations of a patient in the rain when one of them came up to me and said, "great job getting pulse and respirations. How do you think you can avoid your sheet getting too wet to write on and get yourself and the patient more comfortable in the process?" I realized my mistake immediately and put us under a tarp.

During the course where the teachers repeatedly brought to attention the question, "how do you all think you would have done at this on day 1?" This made us realize, "shit, we have learned a lot in a short amount of time." We saw the gap instead of the gain.

The course included TONS of social interaction. We were constantly given time to ask questions to the teachers and all the activities involved socializing with peers. Humans are social creatures. We learn through imitation and have more fun doing something with others than with ourselves.

And lastly, one thing I loved was the humor the teachers used to keep things engaged. Each of them had their own funny slogans to make things memorable like "we don't do this because it might cause the patient to die, and dying is, that's right bad!"


The next thing the teachers used incredibly to make the class great was gamification.

To apply our learnings from lecture, we were given actual scenarios or "games" where we had to go out and save someone in a wilderness setting. Sometimes we were put in groups on teams and competed with each other. Doing this made the learning not only more fun, but actually made us use our learnings in the same setting we would want to use them in.

One of these games from the four days sticks out because of the hilarity. We were put into two groups, red and blue, and I was made group leader. We were told there was a group stuck that had just survived a thunder storm two miles out from the road at a lean two and sent to investigate. When we got there one student was running around having an anxiety attack. He shouted things like "We're all going to die of hypothermia" and other stuff like that. He even spelled mom in the ground with rope at one point. What an actor.

But there were lots of other games that were insane. During one I was given the task of helping a drunk college student in the rain. They were so drunk and rolling everywhere I couldn't get them to stop and measure their pulse or do a spine assessment for a spine injury.

Another time I was the patient suffering from an anxiety attack and my rescuer thought I was having anaphylaxis (a life threatening allergic reaction) so they got an EpiPen. When I asked them what it did they responded "I don't know." You can imagine how this made my anxiety worse. I started trying to crawl away from them but they forcibly injected the epipen anyways. For those that don't know epipens do cure anaphylaxis but they also super raise pulse and respiratory rate. Exactly not what you want for someone suffering an anxiety attack. I started freaking out and had way too much fun acting that day.

It's through games like these that the course kept engaging and fun at the same time.

I'm still amazed how much we learned in those four days. Ironically, I hope to never have to use my first aid skills.

Because prevention is the best medicine.

But one thing I will certainly be doing is thinking about this class when designing and teaching my own educational experiences in the future.