Figurant types in scenario-based exercises
Empirical Research in Vocational Education and Training volume 15, Article number: 10 (2023)
Scenario-based exercises employing figurants are frequently used in vocational education worldwide. The purpose of these exercises is to help the students develop practical knowledge and skills on their way to becoming professional practitioners. While previous research often concentrates on the exercises’ design, level of realism and complexity, there is a knowledge gap regarding the use of figurants, not least when it comes to advantages and disadvantages with different figurant types. The aim of this study is to investigate how, why and in what type of exercises figurants are used in Swedish police education. The empirical material derives from interviews with teachers, students, and figurants from five Swedish police education programmes, focusing on the interviewees’ experience of the use of internal, external, and semi-external figurants in distinctive exercises. The three figurant types were attributed specific effects on the implementation of exercises and were perceived as having different advantages and disadvantages depending on the purpose of each exercise, the impact being particularly noticeable in relation to levels of realism, permissive environments, the counterpart perspective, safety concerns, feedback, and simulation competence. The choice of figurant type has an equally important impact on the outcome of the scenarios as other factors, and there is a need for more research on the use of figurants in relation to student learning.
Scenario-based exercises using figurants constitute a central training element in a range of vocational education programmes from policing and healthcare to engineering (see for example Tannenbaum et al. 1992; Shindler 2001; Colley et al. 2003; Lennquist 2005; Frazier and Hutto 2017; Karnish et al. 2019). Regardless of profession, the exercises are used to promote the acquisition of technical skills and knowledge and to bridge the gap between theory and practice (Cannon-Bowers et al. 1998; Moss 2000; Dieckmann 2009; Oudejans 2008). Several studies underline a positive connection between student learning and scenario-based training (Rao and Stupans 2012; Diamond et al. 2011; Nestel and Tierny 2007; Ruhanen 2005), but to reach expected learning outcomes several criteria must be met.
A great deal of research from various disciplines has been conducted on scenario-based exercises. Some studies cover technical aspects, such as the implementation and the planning process (Sjöberg 2016; Salas and Burke 2002), while others focus on the exercises’ design (Noori et al. 2017), the levels of realism (Andersen et al. 2016; Dieckmann 2009), the relationship between the student's knowledge and the level of complexity of the exercises (Gonzci 2013), as well as on parts of the professional socialisation process (Colley et al. 2003; Frazier and Hutto 2017; Karnish et al. 2019), to mention a few. They all seek to shed light on what is essential in scenario-based exercises if desired learning outcomes are to be achieved.
In a study we completed recently, focusing on the organisation and implementation of scenario-based exercises with figurants in Swedish police training, we soon realised that the interviewees noted distinct differences between the use of different figurant types and linked these to advantages and disadvantages in the training (Jonsson and Lif 2021, 2022). As previously noted by Fragnière et al. (2019), although figurants have a central role in scenario-based training, they have not received the same research attention as other factors. Our conclusion is that the choice of figurant type has an equally important impact on the outcome of the scenarios as other factors and should be added to the academic knowledge regarding scenario-based training (Jonsson and Lif 2021, 2022).
The aim of this article is to present the empirical findings of how, why and when different figurant types are used in Swedish police education and connect this to previous research on scenario-based exercises, mainly concerning levels of realism, permissive environments, the counterpart perspective, safety concerns, feedback and simulation competence. In doing so, we wish to elucidate the role of figurants in scenario-based training and contribute to more knowledge-based choices of figurants.
Types of figurants
In previous research touching upon figurants’ role in scenario-based exercises, no distinction between figurant types is made (Fragnière et al. 2019), which was the main result in our study (Jonsson and Lif 2021). Before we move on to discussion and analysis, we present the characteristics of the three figurant types identified: external, semi-external and internal. We also provide a summary of the interviewees’ perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of the various types.
External figurants are unknown to the practising students and are recruited from outside the police education sphere. They may be professional actors or people with professional experience from areas that police officers often encounter, such as psychiatric care and social services. However, for the most part, external figurants are students from other educations, retirees and others having the task as an extra job (Jonsson and Lif 2021). External figurants represent a variety of characteristics in terms of age, gender, and experience, which is stated by the interviewees as learning benefits for the practising students. Using external figurants requires financial and logistical investments in terms of recruiting, training, and coordinating their involvement. The fact that it is resource-intensive is mentioned as a disadvantage. Late cancellations on the figurants’ part is another disadvantage mentioned by the interviewees, since this leave instructors with an insufficient number of people and/or a mismatch regarding the characters intended for the scenario. This may necessitate require last-minute changes to a scenario or abandonment of the exercise altogether (Jonsson and Lif 2021).
Semi-external figurants are registered police students from other classes and as such not entirely unknown to the practising student, though they may not know each other personally. As police students they are often similar in age and likely to share similar physical characteristics and knowledge levels. One advantage of using semi-external figurants is that the desired number of participants is acquired at little or no cost. However, using students who already have a cramped schedule can sometimes represent a challenge for the administrative staff (Jonsson and Lif 2021).
Internal figurants are the practising students’ teachers or classmates, and as such the parties are aware of each other’s skills, strengths, and capacity. If the figurant role is played by a teacher, his or her professional experience and level of knowledge can be used for challenging and helping the students to develop their skills. Internal figurants in terms of classmates come at no cost and scheduling is not a problem since the students are already on-site. Furthermore, internal and semi-external figurants often share characteristics with the practicing student, both regarding physical abilities and knowledge-wise (Jonsson and Lif 2021).
Methods and material
The study has a qualitative explorative design, which means that we investigated the use of figurants in scenario-based training in an open and flexible manner without a grounded theoretical or empirical preconception. An explorative approach is helpful when existing knowledge is limited, and the researcher seeks to gain deeper insights and develop a more comprehensive understanding of the subject (cf. Elman et al. 2020).
To frame the object of study, we identified four main actors who are involved in the creation of scenario-based exercises: administrators, teachers, students, and figurants. These four actors perform different functions and contribute to the knowledge about the use of figurants from different angles. Taken together, their perspectives provide an overall understanding of the use of figurants.
Interviews were conducted with teachers, students, figurants and administrators from the Swedish police education. The data was collected between November 2020 and May 2021. Since the administrative aspect of the study is not the main topic for this article, the focus below will be put on the results gathered from the other interviewee groups.
The interviews focused on open-ended questions and in-depth reasoning regarding the interviewees’ experience of and views on scenario-based exercises with figurants. Being responsible for the exercises and the students’ learning, the teachers were asked about the purpose and the design of the exercises in relation to figurants and the students’ learning processes, the reasoning behind the choice of figurant type regarding different exercises, and their experiences and perceptions of benefits and challenges in the context. Students were asked about their experience of scenario-based exercises and the use of different types of figurants in learning situations, while the figurants got to describe how they perceived their role in the exercises and how they experienced student and teacher behaviour. The interviewees also reflected on what factors they found essential for the exercises to be successful.
Oral or written interviews were conducted with 20 teachers from the five Swedish universities where police training is offered. 14 of the teachers along with the 9 students and 7 external figurants participating in the study belonged to the same university. One of the figurants had experience from acting as a figurant at two different universities.
The selection of teachers was made from them being responsible for the planning and implementation of scenario-based exercises with figurants, while the selection of students was limited to those classes whom had reached at least half-way through their studies and hence had experienced a variation of exercises. The figurants interviewed represented a variation of backgrounds, ages, and of experience in the role as figurants. While some of them were relatively new, some had a professional or amateur background as actors in film and theatre. Others still, had a thorough experience from acting as figurants in the police education.
In all interview groups, we have striven for an even gender and age mix. However, no specific differences have been found between men and women or in different age segments and therefore this is not addressed in the results.
The oral interviews were conducted via phone or a digital conference tool, recorded and subsequently transcribed. The quotes used in the article have been translated from Swedish to English by the authors and adjusted from spoken to written language to facilitate reading comprehension without changing the content (Table 1).
To achieve the purpose of the study—connecting the findings concerning how, why and when different figurant types are used to previous research and thereby elucidating the role of figurants in scenario-based training, we have looked for patterns in our empirical material and connections among parts of our data and previous research. The starting point has mainly been what has emerged from our empirical material. This has in turn been compared with relevant previous research where we believe that knowledge about the use of figurants adds a perspective to existing knowledge about scenario-based training. However, we have also analytically worked in the other direction, i.e. starting from important factors in previous research we have investigated how our empirical material can contribute with knowledge. As the reasoning starts with specific observations that lead to general conclusions, the study has a more inductive than deductive approach.
The results crystallised into five themes that we have continued to work with in the analysis: levels of realism, permissive environments, the counterpart perspective, safety concerns and feedback. These themes also serve as the framework for the presentation of the study.
The thematic analysis of the data has been carried out in several steps (Lester et al. 2020). The first steps, preparing and organising the data, consisted of transcribing, and becoming familiar with the material (Lester et al.2020). During this process we acquired a better understanding both regarding teachers’ and students’ experiences of different types of figurants in different types of exercises, as well as of the figurants’ opinions on various aspects of their participation. Next, the figurant types—external, internal, and semi-external—were coded in relation to the interviewees’ statements about pros and cons in various training scenarios as well as in relation to the five themes. In the final step, the empirical data was connected to and analysed in relation to previous research. This gave the interviewees' statements an analytical context that clarified how our study's results add a building block to the research and knowledge of scenario-based exercises.
This study’s exploratory approach examining the use of different figurant types in scenario-bases exercises has thus involved investigating the perceptions and experiences of learning situations reported by teachers, students and figurants. The interviewees’ perceptions and the study’s results in relation to previous research on scenario-based figurant exercises represent a first step in identifying factors that are worth studying further in order to develop knowledge about the use of figurants. We wish to emphasise that since we have not undertaken any interventions or other measurements of the relationship between figurant types, different scenarios and effects on learning, we cannot draw any conclusions about it. The study is thus limited to saying something about the relationship between learning and the use of different types of figurants in different exercises.
Throughout the research process, Good Research Practice (n.d) has been followed. The interviewees have been informed of the purpose of the study and have given their consent to recordings and how these will be used. The interviewees have also been decoded and given a number or letter to anonymise statements. Concerning data availability statement, the participants of this study did not give written consent for their data to be shared publicly, so due to the sensitive nature of the research supporting data is not available.
Figurant types and levels of realism
Previous research reveals different assessments of the importance of realism in terms of environment, clothes etc. in relation to the students’ learning during scenario-based exercises (Shindler 2001; Nikendei et al. 2005; Dieckmann 2009; Rystedt and Sjöblom 2012; Andersen et al. 2016). Our study indicates that the question of realism also concerns figurant types. The interviewees stated that the sense of realism in scenario-based training increased significantly with the involvement of external figurants. The following quotes summarise the interviewees’ statements: With [external] figurants it becomes more real. You step up compared to when you know each other. (Student 10).
To ‘step up’ in this context means to act more seriously and be able to take on a more professional role.
Our [external] figurants are very professional, there are a lot of actors /…/ they become very good at this and that’s of great importance because it generates a completely different focus on the part of the students. You can reduce the time, they don’t have to practise for so long because once they practise they are so focused. (Teacher 16)
The fact that the exercises can be perceived as realistic by the students is also testified to by the figurants:
You notice that they [the students] become engaged and act as if it was for real. One was about to give me mouth-to-mouth when I was pretending to be unconscious. (Figurant A)
Another advantage with external figurants stated by the interviewees was variation in age, gender and body types that increases the sense of realism and creates good conditions for real life situations:
Emergency medical exercises were good with [external] figurants because you have to explore and detect things on unknown people with different body shapes, lengths, and such. (Student 3)
The use of external figurants is also said to improve the possibility of altering and modifying scenarios in order to encompass a wider range of potential courses of events:
Another benefit is that we can have [people of] all ages, which we can’t when using students [internal or semi-external figurants]. /…/ Crime within close relationships do in fact occur among the elderly as well, which makes it important to have older figurants, too. (Teacher 8)
Scenario-based exercises may intend to simplify a situation or make it more complex but must correlate with the students’ level of knowledge and follow the learning progression (Jones 1995; Shindler 2001; Murray 2006; Sjöberg 2014; Bergman and Heder 2013). In this respect, the interviewees mention one of the advantages of using external figurants who for example do not have Swedish as their mother tongue. This, since relatively unproblematic scenarios can be made more complicated by simulated but credible communication problems (teacher 4, student 7, figurant A). This exemplifies how basic training elements by simple means, or a minor tweak, can be made more complex and add another dimension. Even if the interviewees specifically mention external figurants in this respect, it is reasonable to assume that internal and semi-external figurants could also be used for the same purpose.
External figurants are often perceived, especially by the students, as particularly important in scenarios involving emotionally demanding roles such as receiving notification of a family member’s death, portraying mental health conditions or participating in exercises concerning crime in close relationships:
She [the external figurant in an exercise on notifying a death] was an amazing actress /…/ it could easily have become a little giggly when in such a serious moment you are supposed to act [as an internal figurant] with someone you normally joke around with, but now must [pretend to] cry and break down with. (Student 5)
However, it seems likely that it is mainly the good examples concerning external figurants that are presented and highlighted in the interview situation. In the above cases, the figurants are high-performance participants with the ability to adapt their behaviour based on the students’ response and the teachers’ instructions, hence allowing scenarios to evolve in a reasonable way and in real-time. Teachers also state examples of when external figurants do not understand or follow the instructions properly, whereupon the exercise fails to produce the desired outcome. The selection of external figurants thus plays an important role.
On the other hand, figurants state that they often have experienced minimal or inadequate instructions and do not fully understand the purpose of the exercises (Figurant A, C, F, G). Unprepared and insufficiently instructed figurants risk acting on the basis of myths concerning how people behave in difficult situations (Enander and Hede 2009). If not properly managed, figurants’ portrayals of a certain role may thereby unintentionally reinforce biases or stereotypes. In turn, this can have a negative impact on students’ perceptions and responses during real-life encounters in their future profession. Consequently, the outcome of the exercise becomes pointless or even counterproductive (Reimers 2003). For a scenario-based exercise with figurants to fulfil its purpose, Fragnière et al. (2019) believe that the following conditions are desirable: (i) the figurants should be instructed by a person with a background in behavioural science because (ii) the more realistically the figurants act, the better the learning for the students. Our study does not show whether behavioural scientists are involved in the preparation of the figurants, but it does indicate that figurants, regardless of type, often need clearer instructions regarding the teacher’s expectations on their partaking in the scenario.
Figurant types and permissive environments
The aim of scenario-based exercises is to reduce the risk of making the same mistakes in professional life (Salas et al. 2005; Lindgren 2012; Bergman and Heder 2013). Previous research emphasises the importance of students being able to and daring to make mistakes during the exercises, which means a safe and permissive environment is required (Hansson 2004; Lindgren 2012; Palmgren 2016). Several interviewees, especially students, emphasise that the relations and jargon in the group have a considerable impact on scenario-based training when internal figurants are used:
Personal relations have a huge impact /…/ The status you have in the group, the relations between [individuals], and who has what education [prior to attending the police programme] and so on and so forth /…/ It all matters later when you are supposed to wrestle each other (Student 9)
Teachers and students stated that during scenarios with internal figurants the focus often tends to be directed towards something other than the intended purpose of the exercise. One common explanation is that students become unsure of their ability to act, and worry about being judged by their peers:
When they [the students] act against each other, they are often nervous about the performance, the counterplay. ‘How am I going to act like I'm in shock?’, ‘What should I do?’ and ‘I can’t cry’. Some find it easy, but the vast majority have difficulties [acting] and doesn’t want it to become silly, to make a fool of themselves or do it the ‘wrong’ way. (Teacher 3)
Even if the students feel that they can act, the social order plays a role in how they act vis-à-vis each other.
When you act as figurants for each other you pretty much know what the person in front of you is capable of and the person who is a figurant doesn’t really give it all. You might not want to make it too difficult [for your fellow student] or, it might be the other way around, you make it too unrealistic. (Student 8)
Another factor that complicates the use of internal figurants is that the students sometimes either overdo or simplify an exercise for each other, which also negates its purpose:
The students who practise with each other tend to exaggerate in the roles and make it more difficult for their peers and those who act as police officers in the exercises become rougher if the figurant is a fellow student. (Teacher 18)
Thus, the group composition in combination with the choice of figurant type have an impact on the scenario and should be taken into consideration in the planning process. The use of internal figurants may work in one group but not necessarily in another, depending on the relationships within the group.
Figurant types, counterpart perspective and safety concerns
The main advantages of using internal and semi-external figurants, as mentioned by the interviewees, were learning benefits such as repetition, the acquisition of scenario skills, counterpart perspectives and safety concerns. Primarily teachers, but also students, emphasised the importance of gaining counterpart perspective:
The major benefit from them [students] acting as [internal and semi-external] figurants, is that they can get a sense of how police may treat people. That you see all these odd things that colleagues do to you and thus can get a closer understanding of /…/ the suspect or the injured party, or whichever your [figurant’s] role is. (Teacher 13)
Experiencing how it feels to have someone else controlling you can probably be good, so you know what you [in your future profession] are exposing other people to. (Teacher 17)
/…/ the main benefit [of being an internal figurant], I suppose, is that if you feel you are being treated well you may be influenced by that student’s manner [in your future profession]. Conversely, should you experience less appropriate treatment you might refrain from behaving like that yourself. (Student 2)
When students are used as semi-external figurants, that is in other classes than their own, they sometimes get to participate in exercises they have already undertaken themselves. In order to act in a reliable way and according to the instructions, this may mean they have to repeat things they have previously learned. In addition, alternating between playing the role of the figurant and the police, gives the student more opportunities to practice their skills and knowledge:
The advantage of having students acting [as figurants] against each other, is that suddenly we have figurants who are knowledgeable [on the subject]. Should it [the exercise] concern a specific area of law, the person who is a figurant may be up to date on that part. If you are well-read you can also act [more realistically] based on how the legislation works. (Teacher 11)
Scenario-based exercises are not just about gaining or consolidating knowledge and skills like law or physical techniques. At the beginning of the programme, the exercises, for most students, are also their first encounter with figurant training, regardless of which type of figurant that is used. Getting the opportunity to participate as a semi-external figurant to classes at a more advanced level than yourself already as a freshman, gives you the chance to practice the first steps in simulation competence:
First and foremost, it [being a semi-external figurant] means that the younger students gain important knowledge and a visionary image of their own learning process. (Teacher 4)
External figurants, as previously stated, are preferable for ensuring a realistic sense of the scenarios. Some researchers argue that to transform skills gained from training situations into genuine know-how, one must rather strive towards a ‘representative environment’ and ‘design’ of exercises instead of a ‘realistic’ or ‘reality-based’ approach (Staller et al. 2017). The benefit in striving towards a representative environment is that “[t]his provides the instructor with a more precise tool to make informed decisions about the trade-off between representativeness and health and safety when he or she designs tasks for the testing of self-defence skills” (Staller et al. 2017: 75). On occasion, teachers in our study used representative environments and situations involving a significant risk of injury. In those cases, for safety reasons, teachers and instructors as internal or semi-external figurants were considered a better option than students or external figurants playing the role of the counterpart:
Most often the instructors act as figurants themselves. Both because the subject is very physical with a major risk of injury, and the fact that the instructors are better able [than other types of figurants] to help the students find the right balance between acting sufficiently and overdoing it. (Teacher 4)
Research also points to other advantages besides the safety aspect of using teachers as semi-external or internal figurants. Hamstra et al. (2014) underlines that learning efficiency—like the teacher in charge focusing on the transfer of knowledge, and the importance of the students engaging in the task—is more beneficial to student learning than high-fidelity simulation scenarios.
Figurant types and feedback
Essential to students learning from scenario-based training is feedback corresponding to the students’ level of knowledge (Jones 1995; Shindler 2001; Murray 2006; Sjöberg 2014; Bergman and Heder 2013). The most favourable learning outcome is considered to be achieved when figurant exercises are followed by discussions and teacher-led sessions with an emphasis on student reflections (Brand and Mahlke 2017; Söderström et al. 2019; Fanning and Gaba 2007). Previous research points to the importance of also allowing the figurants to participate in feedback (Fragnière et al. 2019). However, some teachers in our study refrain from involving figurants in feedback. They refer to previous unsatisfactory experience with figurants being unsure of how to provide feedback, bringing up inaccuracies or focusing on irrelevant aspects (Teacher 12, 13). Another factor mentioned was shortage of time, i.e. the timeslot for each scenario was too short to include the figurants’ feedback (Teacher 3, 16). This suggests that figurant feedback is not valued as important as the comments of teachers or fellow students. Given the purpose of some of the exercises, this may be reasonable, but the inclusion or exclusion of feedback from figurants should be an active and thoughtful choice. Our study shows that students ask for the figurants’ feedback:
They [the students], have also had a lot of questions [to us, the figurants]: ‘When this happened, how did you feel? Was there anything I could have done differently for you not to have reacted in this way?’ So, they seem to have felt it was good that we've been part of it [giving feedback], I think. (Figurant D)
The figurants stated that they would like to give feedback and thought they had important things to convey to the students:
Let’s say we [figurants] have four [practising patrols] in a row doing the same thing - how differently that exercise turns out! /.../ You notice like ‘That cop didn’t look at me at all and the other one stepped up and really...’ At that point, I can enter my private role and reflect: ‘Well, in this situation I would have felt ignored, I wouldn't have liked that in real life’ /.../ or ‘How nice of her to step forward, I felt so safe with him or her there.’ So, you do have a lot of opinions and thoughts. (Figurant C)
Some teachers also emphasise the importance of involving the figurants in feedback to the students:
It’s on the behavioural aspects you want feedback [from the figurants]. How they felt and maybe how hard they were being handled. /.../[I] think it’s important to convey, both as a teacher and as a figurant, that ‘Although it was not intentional, this actually hurt’. And that is something you as a student must learn from, because when you wear a protective vest and other gear, you may not feel anything yourself. You’re on adrenaline and have a belt that can bump into and hurt [the figurant], there are many aspects that I think are important for the figurants to get to give feedback on. (Teacher 12)
Providing rewarding and constructive feedback is a contributing feature of scenario competence (Sjöberg et al. 2015; Salas and Burke 2002). Our interpretation of the interviewees’ statements is that the figurants are not always sufficiently involved in the preparation work and thus cannot provide what is requested. Regardless of the type of figurant used in the exercises, to secure the best possible outcome of the exercise, there is reason to ensure that all participants in the scenario are properly instructed and involved.
Following on from previous research concerning levels of realism, permissive environments, the counterpart perspective, safety concerns, feedback and simulation competence, our empirical material has highlighted additional aspects to consider when planning simulation-based training. The three figurant types, external, internal and semi-external, have been attributed specific effects on the implementation of exercises and are perceived to have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the purpose of each exercise. Characteristics of the three types are summarised in the following Table 2.
Besides available financial, organisational and human resources, important factors to consider in the selection of figurant type are the purpose and nature of the exercise, personal relations, and the atmosphere in the group. No figurant type can be said to be ‘the best’ without being placed in relation to the purpose of the exercise and the possible impact of the other factors. If the purpose is to provide students with the opportunity to meet unknown people and train with different ages and body types, or to make the scenario as realistic as possible, external figurants are described as preferable. Internal or semi-external figurants may be considered if large numbers are required, if the purpose of the exercise is to let the students get a sense of the counterpart’s experience, to let them repeat certain elements or to enable them to gain scenario skills. In some exercises, a combination of figurant types may be preferable. If the exercise involves special difficulties or safety risks, teachers are considered the most suitable as semi-external or internal figurants. Regardless of the choice of figurant type, clear instructions are crucial for everyone involved so as to clarify the aim of the exercise and practise simulation competence. This also applies to the feedback phase, where figurants can provide valuable input.
A feature of the exploratory approach in this study has been discussion of the way in which teachers, students and figurants experienced and viewed the use of different figurant types. However, the main purpose of simulation-based exercises using figurants is that the students learn and acquire the intended knowledge. Our data notes the interviewees’ perceptions that different types of figurants have different effects on learning. To measure transferable knowledge in relation to figurant types, further research is required. We hope that the present study and others on the use of figurants will lead to a closer understanding of the impact on learning of this form of teaching and practice.
Availability of data and materials
The data that support the findings of this study are available in coded form upon request from the corresponding author CJ. The data are not publicly available due to them containing information that could comprise research participant privacy/consent.
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All parts of the study are funded by the Centre for Police Research and Development, Linnaeus University, Sweden. The role of the funding body in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data and in writing the manuscript should be declared.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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Jonsson, C., Lif, S. Figurant types in scenario-based exercises. Empirical Res Voc Ed Train 15, 10 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40461-023-00149-7