Interactive 3D Content Provides Immersive Learning Experiences

February 24, 2021

One of the most pressing challenges in health education today is how to teach human anatomy more effectively. Educators across all content areas find it difficult to keep students engaged and fascinated with the topics they teach, and medicine is no exception. 

Today’s medical student wants more interactive material, especially when tackling complicated subjects like anatomy. Curriculum designers face the task of including more immersive and engaging content to increase student participation and mastery of learning objectives. To meet this demand, leading curriculum designers are now including animated imagery and 3D models that allow students to interact with the content in new and exciting ways.

Students of Health Sciences Are Not Mastering Anatomy

Anatomy and physiology courses are inherently complicated and challenging, and many medical students are unable to reach an adequate understanding of human anatomy. Between 30 to 40 percent of students do not continue with their health studies due to this inadequate mastery of anatomy. Many students who do manage to proceed admit that they don’t feel confident with their knowledge of anatomical structures. 

What makes mastery of anatomy even more complicated is the reduction of hours being dedicated to anatomy courses. With less time to teach a complex topic, curriculum writers and educators have been trying to find more efficient and effective ways to help their students learn.

What is it that makes the mastery of anatomy learning objectives so challenging? First of all, students must learn the names of all the anatomical structures in the body. Labeling and memorizing names of structures can be tedious and overwhelming, especially when faced with such a vast number of them. 

Not only do medical students need to be able to identify all the parts of the human body correctly, but they must also be able to explain their function and mechanics. Understanding the functional capabilities of a joint or muscle is difficult when it isn’t possible to watch its movement and how it operates within the body. Mastering the purpose of an organ and how it works is challenging when one cannot observe that organ in its natural state or analyze its internal structure.

Once students can identify structures and have an understanding of their purpose, they need to learn how those structures are related. Structures are related to each other spatially and functionally. 

It’s difficult to understand the spatial relationships of different structures solely from a written description or static image. Students must develop the skill to visualize the locations and relationships between many different structures. However, many students find it incredibly challenging to take static illustrations of individual structures and visualize their location and spatial relationships within a system. Educators must address this lack of spatial visualization skills if students are going to be successful in their anatomy coursework.

Traditional Approaches Have Drawbacks

Educators have long relied on textbooks with 2-dimensional illustrations to teach anatomical structures. Cadaveric dissection has been the best available tool for augmenting textbook instruction. However, even the proven approach of dissection has its limitations. Above all, physical 3-dimensional models are effective tools but expensive to obtain and maintain.

The Limits of Cadaveric Dissection

Medical schools have increasingly limited access to cadavers. Many facilities don’t have the funding or the space required to offer dissection to their students. Cadavers are costly to procure and have to be stored appropriately. Then there is the issue of disposing of specimens, the process of which is subject to stringent biohazard regulations. Finally, it takes time to dissect a cadaver, locate and identify structures, and process specimens. Now that curriculum pacing is tighter for anatomy related courses, instructors need a more efficient way of giving students the hands-on experience they need.

Students can learn a great deal by exploring actual specimens of anatomical structures. However, the storage of specimens poses a challenge. If an anatomy department wants to provide its students with real specimens for a large number of different anatomical structures, not only do they need ample space but also a firm knowledge of the potential hazards of biomedical storage.

Furthermore, not all specimens are created equal. Some structures are difficult to recognize and may be too small to examine appropriately. Many structures limit access to other structures in the body because of their locations. Finally, some areas of the body are very complex and cannot be fully understood by merely examining the surfaces of the structures involved.

Two-Dimensional Illustrations Alone Are Inadequate

Anatomy textbooks have traditionally contained two-dimensional illustrations to help students visualize structures of the human body. The combination of textbook illustrations and presentation images coupled with dissection is supposed to provide students with a complete picture of human anatomy. Studies are now proving that this simply isn’t the case.

No matter how accurate the illustration, students often cannot grasp the motion of a joint or the mechanics of organ function. Static pictures are insufficient tools to explain the movement of anatomical structures. And many students admit that they are unable to visualize spatial relationships between structures from a two-dimensional drawing.

Static two-dimensional illustrations also offer limited perspectives from which to examine structures. Students don’t have the opportunity to manipulate or rotate the image to gather more information. They also can’t zoom in or out to see internal characteristics or spatial relationships between structures. The lack of options leads to a heavy reliance on spatial visualization skills, which increases cognitive load, slows the learning process, and puts some students at a disadvantage.

Challenges of Procuring or Producing Physical Models

Physical models can be realistic and help solve the issue of spatial visualization deficits. No one can dispute the advantage of being able to handle and manipulate a life-like model of an anatomical structure. Models can provide a more accurate illustration of the function and motion of specific structures like joints. However, physical models also have some limitations.

Physical models are costly to purchase and require storage space. Models can be damaged through improper handling and are subject to misplacement or theft. Depending on the material used to create the model, they can deteriorate over time from regular handling, requiring replacement. Above all, it isn’t feasible for many anatomy departments to procure, catalog, store, and maintain physical models for all the structures of the human body.

It’s possible to create physical models in-house, but the equipment and software required are costly. Materials can also be expensive to obtain. Above all, there are safety concerns with the creation of physical models. There is the issue of ensuring proper ventilation to prevent the inhalation of emitted particles. The process of heating some materials can release toxic compounds. Finally, some 3D printers require high voltage to operate.

The Advantages of Digital Interactive 3D Content

More medical educators are relying on digital 3D models to teach human anatomy. The increasing popularity of digital 3D models is mostly due to their positive impact on student learning. Students themselves report that they prefer interactive 3D digital images to 2D illustrations for learning anatomy, and some studies show an increase in student performance as a result of integrating digital 3D imagery within the anatomy curriculum.

Why Do Educators Prefer Interactive 3D Content?

Anatomy departments can procure more models in digital format than they can of physical models. Collecting physical models is expensive, time-consuming, and requires storage space. Physical models also need regular cleaning and replacement. In contrast, digital 3D models can be cataloged and stored in a digital library. These models can be made accessible to anyone anywhere by computer, tablet, or mobile.

Digital 3D models are also versatile. Educators can use these images to support live lectures or as part of an online course. Students can use them when collaborating during group labs or in study groups when preparing for exams. Educators can embed these flexible tools within an assessment or an online assignment. Giving students multiple exposures to interactive anatomy models and including interactive components for further exploration allows educators to teach anatomy in less time.

Most importantly, interactive digital 3D content is more engaging than traditional 2D textbook illustrations. Educators want to find innovative ways to fascinate and entertain today’s students. Students have reported that using these types of models is “more interesting,” “more understandable,” and “realistic.” When students are engaged in the course material, they develop increased motivation to master the content.

Educators also have the challenge of reaching all learners through differentiation. Self-guided lessons with interactive components is a great way to teach every student at his or her level. If individual students need to revisit activities and online tasks, they can. They can practice virtual surgery or study the simulated morphology of a structure as many times as necessary to fully understand the concept.

Why Do Students Prefer Interactive 3D Content?

Just as educators can utilize digital content in a variety of settings, students can access that content anywhere at any time. There’s no need to return to the lecture hall, laboratory, or library to run through a digital simulation one more time. Students can review the materials at home on a personal computer, tablet, or even a mobile phone.

Self-guided interactive features allow students to move through the material at their own pace. Each student can change the orientation, rotate the image, zoom in for more detail, or change the scale according to their personal needs. Students can focus on the characteristics of individual structures or zoom out to gain an understanding of the spatial relationships between structures. For students who struggle with spatial visualization, interactive anatomy models can aid them in fully grasping those relationships.

Finally, interactive 3D content can be used as a simulation to illustrate surgical procedures or animated to show changes in morphology. 2D illustrations can’t capture the incremental changes of a structure due to the progression of disease. Digital 3D images can fully illustrate the mechanics and internal characteristics of mature structures with high accuracy, but they can also show phases of morphogenesis and degeneration.

What Do Studies Show about Interactive 3D Content?

Multiple studies have proven that including interactive digital 3D content in anatomy coursework helps students gain a better understanding of anatomical structures. As the use of these tools increases, educators and curriculum creators want to ensure there is substantial evidence that these images are benefiting students before adding them to their courses.

“The Effectiveness of an Interactive 3-Dimensional Computer Graphics Model for Medical Education”

The Interactive Journal of Medical Research published a study in 2012 that wanted to determine if three-dimensional computer graphics (3DCG) would provide better visual information for medical students. The researchers from the University of Tokushima concluded that animated and interactive 3DCG helps students understand complex anatomical structures.

Two groups of students examined different models of the shoulder joint. Then, they took an assessment with questions regarding content. The control group used an anatomy textbook containing two-dimensional images, while the 3DCG group learned the material using an interactive digital model.

There were notable differences in the scores regarding learning motivation and content knowledge between the two groups, with the 3DCG group scoring significantly higher. Participants in the 3DCG group claimed to prefer the interactive model because it was efficient, interesting, and the content was easy to understand. Researchers concluded that interactive 3D content is useful and enhances the motivation of students.

“Anatomical Models: A Digital Revolution”

In June 2015, a study was published in Medical Science Educator that examined the widespread use of 3D anatomical models in medical education. They observed that educators are moving away from cadaveric dissection and relying more on physical and digital 3D models to teach anatomical structures more efficiently.

The study examined the challenges surrounding the creation and maintenance of physical models and concluded that the most effective solution would be digital model libraries. Anatomy departments could search for appropriate digital models and pay a licensing fee to use the models in their curriculum. Collecting digital models would be simpler and more cost-effective than procuring physical models or having to navigate the challenges of printing 3D physical models.

In addition to the versatility and ease of implementing digital 3D models into curricula, researchers also touted the benefit of embedding digital learning objects into tasks and assessments. Educators can evaluate the efficacy of these additions by tracking user performance so departments can decide for themselves if their students are more engaged and more successful at learning the material.

“3D Anatomy Models and Impact on Learning: A Review of the Quality of Literature”

Researchers at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, wished to explore studies on 3D anatomy models and their impact and published their results in December of 2016 in the Health Professions Education Journal. They were able to isolate 30 articles of varying research quality and concluded that the research into this topic thus far is inadequate. More high-quality studies are needed to prove the short- and long-term impact of 3D modeling on learning.

The article did, however, highlight the positive benefits of utilizing 3D models in anatomy curricula. As schools limit the number of hours allocated to anatomy coursework and educators look for more efficient ways to teach, interactive 3D models offer a promising solution. Many students struggle to visualize relationships between and functions of anatomic structures because two-dimensional illustrations are inadequate. Interactive digital 3D models allow students to rotate and manipulate images, giving students a better understanding of anatomic dynamics.

The most highly regarded study examined in this article did show that students were better able to identify liver anatomy after being exposed to three-dimensional presentations. One study demonstrated improved student performance on a short-term basis after using 3D models, and three studies showed long-term improvement. One additional study showed that students could complete a task in less time and with more accuracy after being exposed to 3D images. Therefore, there is some evidence that including 3D anatomy models in anatomy lessons can enhance student learning.

“Does Three-Dimensional Anatomy Improve Student Understanding?”

The Journal of Clinical Anatomy published the results of a 2019 study on the effectiveness of digital 3D visualizations for learning anatomy. Dutch researchers found twelve articles that showed a significant benefit to using three-dimensional visualization when compared to traditional methods. Based on their findings, students prefer 3D images for learning anatomy, students gain anatomical knowledge more effectively, and students are highly motivated to learn anatomy when provided with 3D visualization tools.

In three studies, students expressed their opinions on interactive 3D models. They claimed to have found the new methods useful for learning anatomy. In several more studies, students reported that 3D tools are enjoyable to use. According to test results from twelve studies, the use of 3D visualization was notably more effective when compared to traditional methods.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that there is enough evidence found in current studies to show that interactive computer-based 3D models are effective tools for learning anatomy. And most students state that they prefer to learn anatomy from an interactive tool.

How Can Educators Implement Interactive Anatomy Models?

Caduceus International Publishing includes interactive digital three-dimensional images in our new Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) course. The course is accessible on laptops, desktops, tablets, and phones. Multimedia materials can be explored and reviewed at a time most convenient for students.

This recently updated course includes interactive diagrams and high-quality illustrations to help students visualize and understand complex anatomical dynamics. Curriculum designer Dr. Shannon Cox-Kelley has a proven track record of success in reducing Anatomy and Physiology attrition with her incorporation of the latest educational theories, including the use of interactive 3D content.

Interactive 3D content curriculum and activity components are being integrated into all our other health science courses and will be deployed across the board later this year. Caduceus reaches all students by addressing different learning styles and aptitudes. Our use of educational best practices and the latest in 3D digital technology ensures the success of medical students by promising engaging and differentiated materials. If you’re ready to increase your students’ engagement and achievement, Caduceus can help you implement interactive 3D content in your medical school program.

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