Learning can be an uncomfortable process. When we try to learn something new, we inevitably make mistakes. Although mistakes are an entirely normal, even expected, part of the process, confronting our personal deficiencies can be embarrassing and unpleasant. Unfortunately, previous negative experiences with making mistakes can discourage learners from opening themselves to the learning process. Although this vulnerability can feel uncomfortable, especially for high-achieving learners, I believe it to be an essential part of learning. Only by embracing these “growing pains” can we identify weaknesses and learn from them. 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) metacognitive principles, (2) empathy and kindness, (3) clarity and transparency, and (4) transferrable skills.
The anatomical sciences serve as a foundation for medicine. Similarly, anatomy educators like myself have an opportunity to set the foundation for medical education by creating a positive learning environment and equipping students with lifelong learning skills. One such skill that I believe is essential for students, in both academic and clinical settings, is metacognition. More commonly referred to as “thinking about one’s thinking”, metacognition is the ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate one’s learning and performance. Significant evidence has shown that metacognitive skills can improve critical thinking, academic performance, clinical decision-making, and troubleshooting of clinical errors. As such, I strive to provide students with opportunities to develop their metacognition by incorporating evidence-based metacognitive activities into my teaching. Furthermore, I develop innovative methods of encouraging student metacognition such as reflective online discussion boards and an anatomy-focused Catch-Phrase game, and disseminate them through publication to allow students beyond my classroom to benefit as well.
As an educator, I aim to not only provide instruction in the anatomical sciences, but to also support my students through their growing pains by showing compassion and empathy. As reflected in my student evaluations across multiple courses at University of California, Davis (UCD), University of Colorado (CU), and Indiana University (IU), students have found my teaching style to be “calming”, “patient”, “approachable”, “encouraging”, and “compassionate”. As a result, students felt encouraged to ask questions and make mistakes without fear of judgment or feeling inept. As one IU student noted, “I felt that I could ask him any question about anatomy without fear of judgment or feeling incompetent. This was a quality in Andrew which I found extremely valuable from a student's perspective and added to my education in such a meaningful way.” To me, “dumb” questions or mistakes are additional opportunities to help students work through gaps in their knowledge using metacognitive principles.
I also aim to make my teaching exceedingly clear and transparent, both in the delivery of the content as well as in my goals and expectations for the students. For example, both students and faculty across several different courses at UCD, CU, and IU have noted in my evaluations that my teaching is “clean”, “clear”, “concise”, and “precise”. As one student from IU stated, “Even for topics I thought I was understanding pretty well, [Andrew] would explain it to me again and entirely step up my understanding.” In my experience, students have greatly appreciated this approach because it reduces miscommunication and frustration. It also allows students to plan their studying around concrete goals and steps to achieve, a key component of metacognition.
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 opportunities for students to self-assess their learning can encourage them to think metacognitively and identify specific areas of improvement without negatively impacting their stress or self-confidence. These quizzes also clearly introduce students to not only what is expected from them, but also how they may be asked to demonstrate their knowledge. For example, formative assessments could take the form of the take-home quizzes implemented in the undergraduate Applied Human Anatomy course at Regis University (RU). One RU student noted in my evaluations, “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.” As evidenced by the quote, these formative quizzes facilitated the students’ metacognition and allowed them to address their weaknesses in a low-stakes, supportive manner. Weekly dissection quizzes could also be implemented in the cadaver laboratory, such as those used in CU’s graduate-level Human Gross Anatomy course. In these small group quizzes, students must identify pre-selected structures from that week’s dissection, with their score dependent on accuracy and intactness of the structure. In my experience, this approach 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 learning 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 way students encounter anatomy in the classroom is often far from how they will apply their anatomical knowledge in the future. Therefore, students can be more effectively prepared for their future 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, pathology-focused microscopy slides, or radiology/ultrasound workshops. Furthermore, while students learn anatomy, they can also learn a variety of skills beyond the anatomical content such as professionalism, communication, teamwork, empathy, and critical thinking. For example, patient handoffs between dissection teams could encourage proper communication and collaboration whereas requiring proper draping technique on human body donors during dissection could promote respectful patient care. These activities encourage students to treat their donor as their “first patient” and can encourage development of these valuable skills long before they enter the clinical setting. By emphasizing both the relevant anatomical content and additional transferable skills in the curriculum, my students will receive an education that will remain relevant long into their careers.
Although I have gained significant experience and expertise in both the anatomical sciences and in education, I always view myself as a student of both fields. Throughout my career, there will always be more to learn, both as an anatomist and an educator. 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 students ask a question and I do not know the answer, I readily admit that I am unsure and inform them that I will research the correct answer. For example, one IU student noted in my evaluations: “He was always so prepared and answered every question with complete transparency. If he wasn't one hundred percent sure his answer was correct, he would seek out the right answer, and get right back to you.” In the past, students have greatly appreciated this honesty and have considered me a more credible educator for it. Additionally, when (not if) I make a mistake in front of students, I acknowledge the error, thank my students for identifying it, and let them know that their constructive feedback will help me improve further. Like the students, my mistakes also provide me with opportunities to engage in metacognition and identify areas where I can further improve as an educator. I believe that this metacognitive reflection is such an essential skill for educators that part of my dissertation research focuses on how educators can develop their metacognition through reflective journaling after each of their teaching sessions. As educators, we may be experts, but we can always continue to learn and grow.
Some specific areas of improvement that I identified through reflection on my own teaching include technology-enhanced learning (TEL) and student mentorship. In the post-COVID era, TEL is essential for delivering high-quality lessons whether learning takes place in-person or distanced, synchronously or asynchronously. Technologies such as digital dissection software and 3D modelling can greatly enhance learning in this new environment. Further development of my mentorship skills would also allow me to take a more longitudinal role in guiding future generations of students. Thus far, I’ve begun developing my mentorship skills by mentoring students through the IU Project STEM Summer Research Program. This experience was incredibly eye-opening and taught me that I have more to learn about how to effectively mentor and support the unique needs of each student.
The growing pains that come with learning can be uncomfortable, but they also present incredible educational opportunities. As an educator, I teach my students to embrace these growing pains and learn from them by grounding my teaching in metacognitive principles, treating students with empathy, teaching with transparency, and emphasizing transferable skills. Whenever possible, I also model these qualities for my students by reflecting on my own growing pains to identify areas where I can continue to grow as an educator. Ultimately, this approach to teaching supports both my and my students’ lifelong growth.