Learning Anatomy: What Med Students Expect Vs. What They Get



Today’s typical medical student is in their 20s. They’ve been surrounded by digital experiences their entire lives, and many of them may not remember a time before the internet, mobile devices, and social media.


Because they’ve grown up with this technology, the way they think, learn, and process information has been affected by the digital age.


By the time they fill out their nursing school or medical school application, this next generation of clinicians has been immersed in content that allows them to explore, discover, and interact with the world in ways previous generations couldn’t have imagined.


It only makes sense that when it’s time to study human anatomy, they need a way to learn that’s different from how we’ve always done it.


Before we look at how to do things differently, let’s look at how students have come to expect to learn.

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How the digital era has shaped learning styles

Whether they know it or not, many of the digital experiences students engage with are actually active learning experiences that teach them how to problem solve, how to connect with other humans, and what social norms they are expected to follow.


Video games, for instance, are changing the way students learn. Some research suggests that video games help improve visuospatial skills by enhancing these areas of the brain.


They also create a world where the user is in charge, receiving instant feedback for their choices in the game. It stimulates concentration and creates total digital engagement.


Not only are students engaged in video games, but they’re also receiving constant input through social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are all interactive platforms that shorten attention spans, have their own set of learned social norms, and are becoming more and more immersive experiences. Now, more than ever, students are turning to digital content for educational and interactive content.


Emerging augmented and virtual reality technologies also impact today’s students and the coming generations of medical students after them. As the content they experience everyday becomes more immersive, interactive, and visual, they will begin to expect the same from their learning content.


The question is, do immersive experiences actually benefit learning? According to study after study, the answer is yes.


For instance, one meta analysis looked at the results of 36 individual studies that compared traditional anatomy education methods with 3D visualization technology to teach anatomy. The study concluded that 3D visualization technology yielded higher factual knowledge, significantly better results in spatial recognition, and a significant increase in user satisfaction.


The takeaway? Digital 3D models to teach anatomical structures help students on test prep, help them enjoy the experience more, and help them outperform students who were taught using traditional methods.

Group Of Students Looking At Model Brain In Biology Class

How does their medical training compare?

Unfortunately, the immersive experiences students encounter in their world does not match the experiences they face when it comes to learning medicine. Often, anatomy and physiology professors resort to how they learned ten, twenty, or thirty years ago to teach the next generation of health care professionals.


Think about a typical anatomy class in med school – lectures, slide presentations, and textbooks, maybe supplemented with an online resource, but much of the educational experience is text based or uses 2D images to represent 3D realities.


Med students are struggling to adapt their learning style to the medical education and their educators aren’t meeting them halfway.


This results in increasing dissatisfaction with their educational experience, resulting in skipped classes and disengaged students. In fact, in 2018, one quarter of medical students reported that they rarely went to class in their first two years of medical school and instead resorted to digital resources that helped them learn faster and better than traditional teaching methods.


While leading medical schools have begun to adapt to new educational methods, often students essentially guide themselves through complex medicine using diverse tools to help them prepare for exams and learn complex medicine.

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Why their educational experience matters.

Perhaps more important than class attendance and exam prep is knowledge retention and confidence in what they learn. Passive teaching styles packed with bullet points, factual information, and static content encourages rote memorization, not meaningful learning that helps the students remember the knowledge when they need it.


While passive learning isn’t definitely not all bad, the key to meaningful learning is helping students build pathways in their brain so they can recall information when they are practicing medicine in real life. Traditional lectures often have low knowledge retention rates and don’t help students learn efficiently or in a way that matches how their brain learns best.


Traditional education methods also can’t deliver the scenarios of a 3D world. Students learning with 2D graphics in textbooks and slideshow presentations aren’t going to be prepared to face the real world – a world that lives in 3D.


Ultimately, inefficient education methods that result in low knowledge retention compromise a student’s confidence in their medical training. Interactive learning not only prepares them for learning assessments and exams, but it can also impact their real-world application, giving them confidence in decision making and practice.


How to build visual experiences that engage learners

Use interactive content

Implement digital 3D anatomy models into how you teach body systems. You can either pull from a library of existing content or author custom content to fit your exact topic of study. A good 3D anatomy platform will let you highlight important features, allow the learner to explore anatomical structures from all angles, and help them see a good representation of what body systems look like in real life.

Develop engaging tours through the body

Tell the story of the circulatory system or the lymphatic system with a guided tour through the system in question. A guided tour can also show progression of a disease or the effect of treatment on a condition over time.

Create a visual experience to engage different parts of their brain

Help students studying medicine create multiple pathways to their knowledge by immersing them in the information so they can more easily access it when they need to. Allowing them to explore, discover, and learn on their own as well as with professional guidance will help them retain more and be more confident in what they learned.


Discover how to create engaging anatomy education with a BioDigital strategist today.


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