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  • Writer's pictureM. Baggetta

How to teach Anatomy with fewer resources

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

Teaching human anatomy in 2015 is not easy. Two academic journal articles (one in 2005 and one in 2007) independently claim that teaching and learning human anatomy is in decline.

In 1984 the GMC (General Medical Council) eliminated dissection as a mandatory skill which all medical students were responsible for mastering.

Anatomy as a discipline was born of the lessons learned from cadaver dissection. For many anatomy professors, this new standard signaled the beginning of a steady decline of resources, popularity, and support for teaching human anatomy over the past thirty years.

Some common challenges

1. The definition of ‘Anatomy’ is becoming obscure

The perception of Anatomy as a discipline has become blurred. Anatomists with traditional values, fond of and firm on the merits of dissection, are viewed today as stodgy, superfluous, and outdated. This stance, whether catalyst or contributing factor, is discussed widely throughout the community.

2. Dissection is out

After the GMC’s reversal on dissection in the eighties, universities looking to tighten their belts started targeting Anatomy departments due to costly budgets that come with staffing and facilitating cadaver dissections. The dwindling financial resources and unsupportive academic infrastructure compounds the challenges faced by Anatomy and Physiology professors today.

3. Curriculum conundrums

There is a lack of consensus across global standards authorities, detailing what constitutes a core Anatomy curriculum. Anatomical knowledge of the body and its systems is very broad. The majority is neither applicable nor necessary for undergraduate study. Inconsistency among Anatomists about what exactly should be taught weakens their position when appealing for increases in funding and support for their departments.

4. Teaching with the most effective tools

Learning anatomy has traditionally depended largely on reading and memorization of organs and systems. Today, rote memorization is seen as a less effective method of learning than practical, applicable experience. With waning recourse to dissection, Anatomy teachers are in need of cheap and engaging alternative ways of teaching if their discipline is to thrive again.

5. Doing more with less

Reduced funding for Anatomy faculty and teaching facilities makes it difficult for the discipline to stay competitive with already scarce institutional resources and increasing student rosters. Not only is there less money, but professors have less time for maintaining and developing Anatomy teaching and learning initiatives.

Sure-fire solutions

1. Instruction oriented towards clinical practice

The easiest way to address the lack of shape and definition Anatomy course syllabi suffer from is to align curricula with best contemporary clinical practices and advancing techniques. Where possible, partnerships and communication between Life Sciences departments and hospitals can help professors in the classroom to craft lessons that will be useful for students with aspirations to become medical practitioners.

2. Use problem-based learning or team-based learning

To address deficits in time and funding, deploy problem-based learning and small group student-centered learning (prosections) along with traditional methods such as dissection. These approaches allow students to guide each other, and relieve some of the pressure on Anatomy professors who are often vastly outnumbered by students. It also helps students develop a usable body of knowledge grounded in direct experience in addition to rote memorization.

3. Teach Anatomy throughout a student’s degree

Face the epidemic of ‘memorize-for-the-exam-then-forget’ technique troubling many in the Anatomy teaching community head on. Whatever core skill set becomes standardized for teaching Anatomy, it should be taught throughout a student’s degree, not only in their first year. This periodic exposure to identifying anatomical objects and systems will allow students to become more familiar with, and better assimilate, the knowledge.

4. Tap into the global Anatomy teaching community

In 2015, communications among Anatomy departments across the globe is easier and more efficient than ever. Find or create a hub and use it. Share curriculum ideas, funding proposals, teaching methodologies, challenges and triumphs with colleagues from across the globe. Learn from others’ successes and help each other avoid making the same mistakes by sharing experiences.

5. Stretch funding with computer-assisted teaching tools

Dissection may not be as economically feasible as it once was, but if combined with the latest digital 3D modelling tools, a more modest dissection or prosecution component may be incorporated into any syllabus. Web apps like ZygoteBody or Visible Body certainly won’t replace a cadaver, but they can assist students in visually conceptualizing complicated anatomical systems in a new-and cost effective way.

How digital tools can help

These challenges and solutions discussed by the professional Anatomy teaching community show there is a passion and drive to evolve and modernize an essential element of a well rounded education in Life Sciences. Many of the solutions suggested by the community can be enacted and deployed easily and cost-effectively as the Internet and digital technology continue to filter into university classrooms.

Top Hat is already used by hundreds of Anatomy professors across North America to engage students in the active, back-and-forth process of learning in real time. Large or small, classes engaged in their own learning become more invested in the material and develop a deeper understanding that sticks with them past the end of term.

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click the button below.


Originally published on February 4, 2015 on


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