Reflections of an Anatomy Instructor

The following piece was written by Ben Gubar. Ben is a New Jersey tutor for Varsity Tutors as well as a professor for Richard Stockton College.

Mark Twain once said: “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.” In my opinion, this is the bane of every instructor’s existence. When I first started teaching at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, I would hear variations of this quote from my students. My biggest job was not to impart the knowledge to the students, which is what every professor must do, but rather to impart it in such a way that students wouldn’t become confused. One could say that is a big order for someone who teaches Anatomy and Physiology.

As I pored over various anatomy books, I remembered what the course was like for me: thousands of unrelated facts, illustrations, and strange names. The best analogy I can use is to liken it to climbing Mount Everest barefoot and blindfolded. I thought of how I could bring facts, illustrations and names together into something that any student, of any level could understand. You see, I had freshmen that had never taken a college course, to seniors who were ready to graduate but needed an Anatomy course to enter graduate programs in allied health fields.

After reviewing the material for several weeks, I decided upon a paradigm shift. In speaking with students and educators, the two most important traits of successful educators are the ability to relate material to students’ experiences, and to keep things light. To some, these tasks may seem easy, but at the time, they were Herculean to me. How many students today are exposed to some form of forensic exercise in the media? All of those television shows with alphabet names: C.S.I. and S.V.U. Not to mention all of the forensic shows on TruTV, ID, Discovery, Biography and so many other channels. As a forensic examiner, I began to use these tools to teach Anatomy. Many of our class discussions revolve around both clinical situations as well as the use of forensic medicine to illustrate both the anatomy and physiology of the human body. These are things that my students can relate to personally, or have seen in the media. 

Finally, the last piece of the learning puzzle was to prevent the formation of an adversarial relationship between the instructor and the students. Too many instructors see their interactions as “us” versus “them.” There is an easy way to break down this barrier. I term this “partners in learning.” My students understand that, as well as an instructor, I’m their partner in making their learning easier and more valuable. This can be done by the use of various methods. Firstly, by making myself available to my students. When one perceives their instructor as approachable and available, then they are more willing to ask for help. I set aside specific hours during the week for tutoring face-to-face, via college chat sessions, or Skype. I also make time on a daily basis to check my college email account to field questions that need immediate attention.

Students learn by employing various methods. They can be visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, or any combination of the three.  A cursory search of the web reveals the materials necessary to adjust teaching techniques to any type of learner. By the use of available video presentations (instructional and entertainment related), or other materials such as mind mapping, mnemonics, and charts, an understanding of seemingly unrelated facts can be combined into a coherent group. Suddenly, Anatomy and Physiology is not such a mystery, and former concepts can be used to learn new ideas.

Since employing this paradigm shift, my former students have reported higher levels of retention and even stated that they now enjoy learning. For my students past and present, who are pursuing an allied health career path, learning must be a life-long pursuit. New information necessary for successfully treating patients increases exponentially, almost on a daily basis. To me, it starts with a good basis in Anatomy and Physiology.

Check out Ben’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.