Learning can be an uncomfortable process. When we attempt to learn something new, we inevitably make mistakes, increasing our vulnerability to embarrassment and appearing all-around foolish. Unfortunately, past experiences with this unpleasant feeling (or even just the fear of it) is sometimes enough to discourage learners from opening themselves to the learning process. Although this vulnerability can feel uncomfortable, especially for individuals who are accustomed to being experts or high-achievers, I believe it to be an essential part of learning and continued growth. To quote the animated show Adventure Time: “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”. Only by taking action and making “mistakes” can we identify weaknesses and take the necessary steps to address them, thus learning and growing in the process. Therefore, as an educator, I strive to foster a growth mindset in my students and build their resilience to failure by grounding my teaching in (1) empathy and kindness and (2) clarity and transparency, and (3) transferable knowledge and skills.
As the foundation for the medical sciences, anatomical science courses are often positioned at the beginning of healthcare professional curricula. Anatomy educators like myself have the opportunity to set the stage for these students by establishing a positive learning environment and equipping them with lifelong learning skills. Although our students have met the criteria to enter graduate and professional programs, they may not be accustomed to the rigors of those programs. When facing the uniquely challenging material, they will likely struggle. In the short term, they may feel discouraged or inadequate. However, in the long term, these feelings may compound into anxiety, depression, stress, imposter syndrome, and burnout, ultimately hindering their continued growth as students and healthcare professionals.
As an educator, I aim to not only provide instruction in anatomy, but to also mitigate these hindrances to learning by showing my students compassion and empathy as they begin this new chapter in their education. As reflected in my student evaluations for the undergraduate CHA 101L Human Gross Anatomy course at UC Davis and graduate ANAT D528 Gross Anatomy for Healthcare Professionals course at Indiana University, students have found my teaching style to be “calming”, “patient”, “approachable”, and “compassionate”, which encouraged them to ask questions and make mistakes without fear of judgment or feeling incompetent. I also seek to make my teaching exceedingly clear and transparent, both in the material as well as in the learning objectives, purpose of different activities and assignments, and my goals and expectations for the students. For example, both students and faculty from several different courses at UC Davis, University of Colorado, and Indiana University have noted in my evaluations that my teaching is “clean”, “clear”, “concise”, and “precise”. In my experience, students have greatly appreciated this approach because it reduces miscommunication and frustration while providing them with concrete steps and goals to achieve. As one student in the ANAT D528 course stated in my evaluation, “Even for topics I thought I was understanding pretty well, [Andrew] would explain it to me again and entirely step up my understanding.”
My emphasis on empathy and transparency is not only reflected in my student-instructor interactions, but also in the fabric of the curriculum itself. For example, I am a huge proponent of low-stakes, formative assessments. Early exposure to different types and difficulties of exam questions would allow students to not only practice, but also identify specific areas of improvement without negatively impacting their stress or self-confidence. These quizzes would also clearly introduce students to not only what I may expect from them as the instructor, but also how I may ask them to demonstrate that knowledge. In the traditional lecture-based course, these formative assessments could take the form of short, weekly quizzes on the recent material such as the take-home quizzes implemented in the undergraduate HES 374 Applied Human Anatomy course at Regis University. As one student stated, “The take-home quizzes helped my learning because it narrowed down what information was important and allowed me to see what areas I was struggling in.” In the cadaver lab, I would use weekly dissection quizzes similar to the ones used in the graduate-level ANAT 6111 Human Gross Anatomy course of the Modern Human Anatomy Program. In these small group quizzes, students must identify a pre-selected set of structures from that week’s dissection, with their grade dependent on the accuracy and intactness of the structure. In my experience, this approach has motivated students to take pride in their work and perform high-quality dissections, leading to increased ownership over their learning. Even when a structure is lost or damaged, minimal points are lost, but long-term retention occurs because, as I often tell students, “you never forget a structure you accidentally cut”.
Lastly, I strive to teach the anatomical sciences in a manner that is applicable and transferable to the future careers of my students. The manner in which students encounter anatomy in the classroom or the lab is often far from how they will use anatomy in the future. Therefore, students can be more effectively prepared for their careers by providing them with opportunities to apply their anatomical knowledge in a format that parallels their future work, such as in-depth clinical cases, clinically oriented MCQs, or radiology/ultrasound lectures and workshops. Furthermore, gross anatomy includes a “hidden curriculum” beyond the anatomical content that can be leveraged into professionalism, communication, teamwork, empathy, and critical thinking practice. For example, patient handoffs between dissection teams could encourage proper communication and collaboration while requiring proper draping technique on donors during dissection could promote respectful patient care. These activities that encourage students to treat their donor as their “first patient” can help students develop these valuable skills long before they enter the clinical setting. By emphasizing both the relevant anatomical content and the soft skills in the curriculum, my students will receive an education that will remain useful and relevant long into their careers.
Although I have gained significant experience and expertise in both the anatomical sciences and in education, I remain a student of both fields. Therefore, I strive to model my own principles for my students and remain open to learning new pedagogical techniques, even through the growing pains. When I make a mistake (not if), I acknowledge the error, thank my students for identifying it, and let them know that their constructive feedback will help me improve further. As educators, we may be experts, but we are still very much human.
Some specific areas I would like to improve upon are technology-enhanced learning (TEL) and curriculum design. In the post-COVID era, TEL is essential for delivering high-quality lessons whether learning in-person or distanced, synchronously or asynchronously. Technologies such as digital dissection and video conferencing software can greatly enhance learning in this new environment. Further development of my curriculum design skills will also ensure my students continue receiving an effective and relevant education in the anatomical sciences. As medical education continues its vertical integration of the basic sciences into the clinical years and vice-versa, educators must align their curricula with the broader learning outcomes and milestones required by the LCME, ACGME, and other major accrediting bodies.