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Are We Learning to Dissect or Are We Learning Anatomy?

Watching students dissect a cat specimen one day in her classroom at the University of Maryland’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, Dr. Angela Black wondered if students were learning the right thing.


“Maybe having them all dissect a lot is really just teaching them how to dissect,” she said in recent podcast interview.


“Maybe it’s not actually teaching them the anatomy … They are spending a lot of time picking off fascia and asking where to cut but are they really studying the anatomy? And do they need to know how to dissect if what the class is supposed to teach is anatomy?”


It was an eye-opening moment. And it would lead to a change in how Dr. Black approached teaching and learning.


But let’s set the scene first.


At the University of Maryland in College Park, Dr. Black coordinates the animal care program and provides veterinary care for animals housed in the Animal Sciences Building as well as at the Campus Farm. She teaches undergraduate classes including Anatomy of Domestic Animals, Laboratory Animal Management, and guest lectures in Principles of Animal Science, Small Ruminant Management and Health Management of Animal Populations.



Always looking for new ways to engage students, Dr. Black found the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System one day when she was searching online to see how anatomy was being taught in medical school. She ordered a CANIKEN® model and was instantly “delighted.”


At first, and for several years, Dr. Black would build muscles and other anatomical systems on the models while students dissected their cat specimens. Students would come look at Dr. Black’s work on the clay building, as needed, to answer any questions or discern how certain structures were formed.


Then Dr. Black reached out to Anatomy in Clay® and struck a deal to borrow six models for one semester. She asked for any students who might be willing to learn in a subgroup, building in clay while other students continued with dissection.


“The students who were willing to do it were patient and did a good job,” said Dr. Black, “But what I learned was they needed some background information first—they needed to know the anatomy from the dissected specimens first (before building in clay).” Dr. Black also realized that construction with clay took more time than dissection.


Then came that moment the prompted Dr. Black to “rethink everything,” when she observed groups doing dissection often meant that two students worked on the specimen while the others were on their phones and distracted.



Last fall, Dr. Black bought six CANIKEN® models. And started a new approach.


First, students would be given a list of muscles and anatomical structures to find and explore on their pre-dissected cat specimens. There were iPads at every table and students were expected to label and photograph the identified structures on the preserved specimens, working in groups, and then upload their photos to the learning management system.



Next, working in pairs on the CANIKEN® model, two students per side, each pair would build seven muscles in clay following a list provided by Dr. Black. Once complete, the two pairs working on the same CANIKEN® model would then teach those muscles to one another before uploading another round of photos from the clay models.


Dr. Black passed along a few tips for teachers who might be using the system for the first time:


  • Teachers should build on an Anatomy in Clay® Learning System model before instructing students.

  • Make it fun.

  • And don’t expect artistic masterpieces. That’s not the point! “Some (models) are not going to be pretty – it’s the process of creating … and saying it goes from here to here and when it contracts it does this.”


Dr. Black noticed one clear trend right away: student scores on gross anatomy quizzes were significantly higher,” she said.


Later, in an email exchange, Dr. Black added that the other “big” difference that she noticed was that students who were building in clay were talking about the material—they were using the terminology as one individual student read the name of the muscle, the insertion the origin and the action and then the other member of the pair did the actual building. Dr. Black added that she observed much better engagement with the material and multiple forms of engagement—auditory, tactile and visual.



Dr. Black said some lecture learning is devoted to basic Latin and Greek prefixes, roots and suffixes. “It was very encouraging to hear students using these words such as proximal, superficial, medial, etc. as they described the locations of various structures,” she said in the email.


Some students complained about the amount of work. With the new approach, Dr. Black concedes, “there isn’t a lot of downtime” in what’s expected of students during class.


Some students think the clay construction is not as effective, but Dr. Black said the quiz scores were irrefutable proof of the learning system’s efficacy. In short, “the scores were better.” The students were no longer learning dissection, they were focused on anatomy.


“I know it’s the best way to understand anatomy,” said Dr. Black. “I really do.”


To watch this conversation, visit the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System’s YouTube here.


Or download the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System podcast via your favorite podcast provider. You may also listen online here.

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