As long as humans have required medical care, there’s been a need to understand anatomy and physiology (A&P). The human body is a complex machine, and that makes teaching students about it a complicated process. The recent move to online learning has only made this more apparent.

Understanding how to teach anatomy often involves learning new skills and new approaches than teaching in a classroom. Most anatomy and physiology instructors are already well-prepared to make the switch online, but there’s always room to improve. Understanding the specific challenges of teaching online can help you use the unique educational opportunities that technology offers to enhance student engagement and course delivery. 

The Challenges of Teaching A&P Courses Online

There’s simply no getting around the fact that anatomy and physiology involves a lot of memorization. The biggest challenge most A&P educators face, online and off, is keeping students engaged despite the amount of work that goes into learning definitions and terms. However, online educators face several other challenges. 

For example, many in-person courses rely on hands-on demonstrations to keep students’ attention. It’s difficult or impossible in remote classes to get students into the same room as physical models. This also leads many instructors to struggle to impress upon students the actual location and context of specific body systems. 

Finally, a core aspect of any science course is the ability to perform labs. Without access to the right facilities, instructors may find it challenging to rework their lab units. Especially for students on the medical track, the lack of labs can lead to confusion or struggles in later courses. 

Keeping Students Engaged

Most in-person physiology and anatomy courses are the result of years or decades of refinement. Established institutions have generally provided some form of A&P courses to hundreds of students annually. They have had the time to find curricula that prepare students for the future and keep students engaged to avoid attrition.

This refinement results in traditional classroom curricula that students are willing to engage with. The bland, boring, or simply bad aspects of previous curricula have been dropped since they were likely connected to poor student performance and high attrition rates. 

Online courses have not generally had that same kind of time to refine their syllabi and assets. However, taking the time to actively consider and improve these courses’ materials can help avoid the relatively high attrition rates that all online courses experience. 

One way both traditional and online courses can improve is by taking advantage of modern technology. Many instructors rely upon PowerPoints and other slideshows to help them communicate with students. However, slideshow-assisted lectures do little to keep students engaged. Students can quickly get distracted and miss important points because there’s nothing to hold their attention. 

Instead, instructors should look for ways to make their materials, lectures, and assignments interactive. When students can interact with their professors and interesting class materials, they are more likely to stay enrolled in a course. In fact, studies suggest that interactivity is a primary indicator of whether students will remain satisfied, engaged, and enrolled in an online class. 

Dissection in A&P In-Person and Online

One distinct difference between online and in-person anatomy and physiology courses is how they handle dissections. The process of dissection allows students in traditional classes to see actual bodies and body systems in their usual context. To truly grasp the interconnectedness of the body, this kind of hands-on learning is invaluable. 

Online courses cannot provide the same in-person experience of dissecting cadavers, but these environments are full of innovative technology that can make a difference. Many online A&P educators use state-of-the-art 3D simulations to give students the ability to explore the human body on their own. Combined with high-quality videos and other forms of media, online A&P courses provide students equally valuable experiences. 

Strategies for Teaching Successful A&P Courses

Whether you’re teaching in-person or online, there are a few tricks that every instructor can use to improve their courses. It’s important to remember that almost every modern student uses technology frequently in their day-to-day life. Incorporating technology into your anatomy and physiology courses is an excellent method of keeping your students more engaged. 

Embrace Blended Learning

First and foremost, there’s never a wrong time to embrace the concept of blended learning in your teaching. All students do not learn the same way. Every student has their own learning style, and the educational materials that help one student may simply frustrate or confuse another. Instead of catering to one type of student, blended learning focuses on reaching out to every learning style. 

There are four primary learning styles:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Writing and reading
  • Kinesthetic

By nature, most educational materials appeal to learners who appreciate writing and reading. However, that leaves out a significant portion of students. Studies have shown that the majority of physiology students have a “multimodal” preference when it comes to learning, meaning that they prefer to get their information in at least two of the four styles. 

Blended learning prioritizes this type of multimodal learning. Instead of just assigning readings or just giving a lecture, blended learning educators provide both. They will also offer diagrams and clear, understandable images for visual learners, and models and hands-on activities for students that prefer kinesthetic learning. 

As a result, students who prefer one particular learning style will have at least some materials that meet their preferences. Meanwhile, multimodal learners will be able to reinforce their understanding of the course through various learning methods. This leads to a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the topics at hand and can even improve students’ attention spans. 

Use Virtual Labs 

Even if you’re teaching human anatomy in a traditional setting, you may not have access to lab facilities when you want them. If this is the case or teaching a fully remote course, online labs are invaluable. 

Instead of relying on simple illustrations or other people’s videos, these virtual labs give you full control over what your students see and learn. There’s also no risk of students accidentally damaging equipment or producing invalid results due to poor lab technique, making it an excellent choice for students new to the lab. 

Explore Virtual Dissections

Like virtual labs, virtual dissections can help fill gaps where there isn’t the time or ability to fill them in-person. With online dissections, your students can explore the body themselves, instead of watching someone else more experienced handle the dissection. 

Even better, with online virtual labs and dissections, there’s no risk of scheduling mishaps or other problems. Instead, students can access the materials whenever they have time and spend as long as they like studying them. Compared to strictly limited time slots on physical labs, this gives your students freedom to learn on their schedule. 

Provide 3D Visualizations

School budgets often limit the number and quality of physical models for students to use, making it difficult for them to examine these anatomical elements. Furthermore, for students who aren’t on campus, these models are useless. Virtual models, on the other hand, are accessible anytime, anywhere. 

A virtual 3D model of the body or a system is an excellent tool for visual and kinesthetic learners. These students — who prefer to look at and manipulate systems to learn about them — often struggle if they can’t access models during a course. 3D online anatomy models are available for students to study whenever they have time. 

Best of all, these 3D visualizations can be tied into lessons or simply left as study aids. Depending on the needs of your course and students, a virtual model can fill any role without being destroyed or “used up.”

Get Creative

Finally, teaching anatomy and physiology will always require some creativity. While it’s crucial to have the best materials to help students learn, it never hurts to add more creative elements to the course to keep students’ attention. Opportunities for creativity might include:

Home Lab Experiments: Anatomy is one course where everyone has an example of the subject matter at hand at all times. Set up home labs that involve students measuring or examining their own bodies, such as their respiratory rates or temperatures. This makes the concepts they’re learning immediately applicable to their own lives.

Medical Mysteries: For problems or topics that can’t be easily measured at home, incorporate them into “medical mysteries.” Provide your students with some basic information about a fictional patient and lead them through the process of identifying the cause of their problems. 

Using Stories to Lead Into Topics: Finally, getting your students’ attention from the start of a module is worth the effort. Use an exciting story, such as strange medical cases, to lead into new topics. When students understand how something can go wrong, it’s often more interesting to learn how it’s supposed to go right instead. 

Keep Students Engaged with Interesting Materials

Teaching A&P is first and foremost about educating your students, but that requires keeping their attention. The more engaging your materials, the better your students will learn. Whether you’re teaching in-person or improving your online course materials, using technology and virtual models is an excellent strategy to teach A&P more effectively.