Perspective from Medical Anatomists

The American Association of Anatomists has existed for more than a century as a society of mostly professors who teach medical students. There have always been a few other anatomists in the membership, like those of us who teach precursor courses to premedical students. The society has been prodded by some members to expand its view of itself beyond a club that teaches only Gross Anatomy in a clinical setting. To facilitate conversations about teaching, which is something all members value, the society set up a listserv a few years ago. Recently a question came in seeking information about how others are teaching pre-baccalaureate anatomy. I posted information about how I teach anatomy at Hamilton College.

What follows is my post and some clips of perspective that were sent to me in response to that post.

Sent: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 10:03 AM
From: AAA - Education Listserv
Subject: Re: Information on Undergraduate Anatomy

I teach anatomy in an undergraduate liberal arts college setting where physiology is a separate course and there are no clinical programs. Knowing that many medical school faculty use the word, undergraduate, for their medical students, I remind readers that my undergraduates are pre-baccalaureate students; pre-medical not medical students. This may make my information appear less relevant to those with focused clinical interests, but that should not be the case. Most of my students subsequently go to medical school or to programs to become physician assistants, nurses, physical therapists, etc.

Using human cadavers in this setting is not necessary or appropriate. Using human cadavers would cater to some undergraduate fantasies, but such expensive pandering should be avoided when substantial understanding can be acquired from dissecting a cat. Please stay with me for a short explanation that I hope puts the value of real dissection using cats into perspective.

Pre-medical instructors should be teaching understanding as much as information, but too often the information drowns opportunities to teach understanding and how to think like an anatomist. Selectively limiting the information, while instructing how to dissect (not dIsect) and how to appreciate a functional organization sets a solid foundation. A lot of understanding can be obtained from a cat. Then subsequent use of a human cadaver in the appropriate clinical context is more efficient and effective.

Endless memorizing can be counterproductive, so I discourage it. Memorizing is not understanding. I emphasize understanding the organization of tissues so that students can reason about structure and function. If students understand connective tissue relations to organs, muscles, etc. and how to wisely dissect it, they make a quicker start in informative dissection of a human cadaver and they can hear more of the clinical connections in lectures, etc. because they are not struggling with basics.

I do not have students memorize the minutia of associations either. Origins and insertions, and innervation are understood more usefully with the reasons that are included in a clinical course. Knowing general locations of muscles (what they "run between") and that muscles work by shortening provides rudimentary general understanding and facilitates a useful addition of details in a subsequent clinical context. Appreciating connective tissue spaces and organization informs dissection as well as study of histology and physiology. Becoming aware of regional organization, instead of systems hung in dissociated diagrams also helps set a valuable foundation for clinical study.

I have also retained sectional anatomy in my development (embryology) labs. Most of my students will not obsess about developing anatomy again in their lives, but they will take away mental agility to think about dynamic anatomy as represented in 2-dimensional images, and they can quickly follow animated 3-dimensional constructs as well. They also get background for understanding adult gross anatomy. I avoid digitized substitutes, but have some visible human applications available for awareness, and I encourage exploration on the web, again for awareness of tools available.

I make the reasons for what students are doing clear. I get appreciative notes once they have the opportunity to apply the advantage of their skills in their clinical programs. The value of setting wise foundations before post-baccalaureate programs should not be overlooked in these discussions. Cats offer opportunities that digital constructs cannot.

Thank you for your indulgence in reading this long note.

Sue Ann Miller, Ph.D., Professor of Biology, Hamilton College

from a Professor of Anatomy at a School of Medicine
Dear Professor Miller,

"Please accept my thanks for taking the time to explain the rationale you use in instructing undergraduate students in the principles of anatomy. ...

"I believe you are absolutely correct in pursuing the course of instruction you are following. I am envious of the medical schools and other health professions programs that receive students who have been through your course. ...

"I hope you will continue to do things the way you are doing them, and I hope you will spread the principles you use to anyone who will listen.

from a Director of an Anatomical Services Divsion in a School of Medicine who is a member of a State Anatomy Board of the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene

"I fully agree with your position ...
I am confident that your learning approach better prepares the student for human dissection to follow."

from an Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Biomedical Sciences at a School of Dental Medicine

Dr. Miller -

"I want to thank you for the time you took to write your response regarding the use of cadavers in pre-baccalaureate education. You are right on target ...

... I agree with your methodology of teaching and were it applied to professional education, it would certainly have more relevance than volumic factoid memorization."

to other thoughts about teaching and related matters.
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This page last modified: June 2016