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After 40 Years of Teaching Anatomy, Here's What I've Learned
It’s about what’s best for the students, not the instructor
February 02, 2019
By: Dr. Robert Tallitsch
For a large portion of the last half century, I have been living my dream day in and day out – expanding my own knowledge base of the human body and sharing that passion with the curious group of students that walked into my anatomy lab each semester. For a good segment of my career I was an “Old School” anatomy professor, teaching as I had been taught. I was a “sage on the stage” lecturing for most, if not all of each class period. I thought I had this whole teaching thing figured out…until it came to my attention that everything I taught my students went out the door as soon as they took their tests. I realized I wasn’t teaching my students how to retain and use the information I was covering in order to solve complex, 3D anatomical and clinical problems. I was leaving that up to them, and it wasn’t working. So, as any good educator would do, I sat myself down in front of a blank whiteboard and began restructuring my curriculum.
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I had been reading about innovative ways to engage my anatomy students during class. I wanted my students to not only utilize the information we were covering in class, but also open their minds up to the incredible world that’s held inside the human body. After months of hesitation, I decided to take the plunge and incorporated Problem-Based Learning into my classes. I was hooked. Assessments clearly demonstrated an increased understanding of the material being covered in class and also demonstrated an increased interest in class subject matter, as well as an increased long-term retention of material. Simply put, the addition of PBL pedagogy to my classroom was having a positive impact on learning. I finally understood what my mentor meant when he said “Bob…what is best for your students isn’t going to be what is most comfortable for you, so get over it.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to use PBL because I was concerned about letting go. I was concerned about the increased work load and about the difficulty in writing high-quality PBL problems. BUT my students and their academic advances convinced me otherwise. Never again would I think twice about investigating a pedagogical change to the way I taught —especially if the SOTL literature pointed out that it would positively impact student learning!
After a few years my students’ academic gains seemed to level out. All of the assessment parameters seemed to have plateaued. My students needed something new that would enhance their learning and add to the gains that I had seen with the implementation of Problem-Based Learning. So I started using computer programs in class to supplement my learning management system assignments and PBL discussions. The choices were limited and were crude by today’s standards, but the positive effects of computer-assisted instruction in lecture and laboratory were clearly evident in the assessment data, and were additive to the effects of adding PBLs to my classroom. My students demonstrated even greater subject interest! Greater problem-solving skills! Greater three-dimensional understanding of anatomical concepts! Longer retention of material!
Approximately ten years ago I took the plunge and completely flipped my Human Anatomy and Neuroanatomy classes. Software packages with simple learning curves were available to make lecture videos that could be uploaded to our college’s server and then downloaded by my students prior to coming to class. New computer software packages were available, and those were incorporated into the lecture videos, classroom sessions and laboratories as well. Computer-assisted instruction became front and center in my classes. Lectures, for the most part, disappeared from my classrooms and almost all of the time in class was spent answering student questions and learning how to use information through clinical problems. Spontaneous “think questions” were incorporated daily; some were graded; most weren’t. Again my assessment data clearly demonstrated the positive effects of this teaching pedagogy, and my students’ gains were the highest I had seen in all of my years teaching. When I retired after 43 years of college teaching, lecturing was a thing of the past in my classes, and my classes were more popular than ever. The combined computer assisted instruction and flipped classroom pedagogies were working better than I had ever imagined. The only question that remained at the time of my retirement was why I had waited so long to take the plunge.
I mention this not to brag but to tell you what is possible in the classroom. Yes innovation can be labor intensive, and yes innovation can involve some budgetary planning. But we all became educators because we wanted to teach and help our students learn. Regardless of the academic level of your home institution I urge you to think about what my mentor told me when I began teaching at Augustana, and I urge you to strongly consider BodyViz’s interactive 3D anatomy software and its amazing capabilities as the first step in transforming your anatomy curriculum with innovative methods. The field of anatomy education is rapidly changing, and if we, as educators don’t change then our students will be left behind and they will miss out on some amazing opportunities to find out just what they are capable of in the classroom and the laboratory. Contact the BodyViz team to learn more about their innovative 3D anatomy software and curriculum eLearning modules.