Because of shrinking budgets and computerized virtual dissection programs, many large and small institutions are closing the door on traditional and expensive cadaver dissection classes. However, many health-care educators would argue there is still a place for cadaver dissection in higher education, so the continuing challenge is to provide the undergraduate, pre-allied health-care student with dissection experience as budgetary constraints lead institutions away from this valuable and time-honored teaching tool. I present a teaching model that looks to address those concerns and is taught in a unique way, with minimal overhead and with the potential to provide an effective and rewarding experience for students entering the medical, nursing, and physical rehabilitation fields.

Many academic institutions have adopted an all-or-nothing philosophy with regard to cadaver-based anatomy courses, feeling the need to either teach the full traditional program, which can be very expensive, or eliminate the course altogether. It is evident that the use of cadaver dissection is on the decline (Older, 2004; Hanna & Tang, 2005; Turney, 2007). A 10- to 20-year trend reveals that a large number of undergraduate students are taught by studying prosected specimens, or more recently through the use of computer simulations and virtual dissection. While these ancillaries serve as valuable teaching tools, they simply cannot replace the hands-on experience that dissection affords (Kerby et al., 2011). Currently, most undergraduate students are not offered the dissection opportunity (Lempp, 2005). Students continue to learn anatomical structures (Perry & Kuehn, 2006), but they develop little dissection technique.

Here, I assess whether a more cost-effective alternative to the traditional teaching model that still affords each student the opportunity for cadaver dissection might be a viable option for teaching human anatomy. While many educators may not see the benefits of all aspects of this model, it does illustrate the potential to present a different approach to the traditional cadaver program.

## Materials & Methods

A new course in cadaver anatomy dissection was designed and first implemented in the spring of 2001 to address the need for hands-on dissection experience for students who were predominantly applying to physician assistant, physical therapy, and medical schools. The course focus was fourfold: (1) to foster the development of critical-thinking skills through problem-based learning (PBL) for the upper-division, pre-allied health-care students enrolled in the course (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993; Chang et al., 1995); (2) to cultivate and enhance dissection skills prior to admission to graduate-level coursework; (3) to format the course in such a way that ensured its long-term success with relatively low overhead; and (4) to evaluate the effectiveness of this model for teaching cadaver anatomy, based on student ratings over a 10-year period.

## Results

Student comments since 2001, before and after addressing the various logistical concerns, are favorable. Student Ratings of Instruction collected at the end of each semester provide insight into students’ perception of class effectiveness and help us determine the level of student satisfaction. Statistical data of course evaluations since 2001 ask the students to rate the course in a number of different categories, comparing this course to other courses students have taken at the university (Figure 1). Drop rates for this course are comparable to those of other upper-division college courses at Metropolitan State University of Denver and hover in the 5–10% range. All numerical data are based on a 1.0–6.0 rating scale, with 6.0 being rated the highest.

Figure 1.

Student ratings of the cadaver course (general student perception, of course). Blank spaces indicate that no data were acquired for the field.

Figure 1.

Student ratings of the cadaver course (general student perception, of course). Blank spaces indicate that no data were acquired for the field.

Figure 2 compares the cadaver course’s ratings against means for other courses within the department and the university during the same period, once again rated on a 1–6 scale, with 6 being rated highest. Rows 1 and 2 show average student ratings for the cadaver course. Row 3 and 4 include average faculty ratings within the department, and rows 5 and 6 include average faculty ratings for all courses throughout the university. Figure 3 includes class averages measured in percentage points since 2005. Although this course was not compared with other courses within the department or across the college, this table may provide some insight as to how students perform in the course and whether the majority of students learned the material and met the minimum expectations. Documentation collected prior to 2005 was measured in a different format and was not included in this graph.

Figure 2.

Departmental and university course comparisons against the cadaver course during the same year in two major categories.

Figure 2.

Departmental and university course comparisons against the cadaver course during the same year in two major categories.

Figure 3.

Class averages rated in percentage points since 2005.

Figure 3.

Class averages rated in percentage points since 2005.

## Discussion

The course model proposed here uses a combination of lecture, PowerPoint presentations, and hands-on demonstrations (i.e., demonstrating orthopedic and neurologic testing to illustrate applied anatomy and posing critical-thinking questions), all of which serve to engage the student, and present the material in a more holistic manner and from different perspectives. The four lab stations also reinforce this goal. Through this applied model, both in lab and in lecture, students can gain a better understanding of anatomy and its importance as one of the cornerstones of health-care science.

A principal consideration in any course is the ability to meet specific student learning objectives set forth in the course syllabus. Objectives listed from the beginning for this course included helping the student acquire a broad understanding of applied human anatomy, applying principles of critical thinking to the material, and preparing them for success in graduate anatomy coursework. Medical-school admissions committees look for applicants that possess the ability to logically formulate accurate conclusions from the various facts learned in class. This ability to “transfer” learned information to solve a more complex problem, discussed by Bergman et al. (2011), is often lacking in the undergraduate student skill set. That skill, maybe more than any other, helps determine success in graduate health-care programs. Teaching cadaver anatomy in this contextual format applies these pedagogical principles through PBL modules in the case-study section and applies this knowledge from many different angles and applications. As previously stated, the majority of the students who take this course plan on attending physical therapy, physician assistant, medical, and nursing graduate programs. During the more than 10 years that this model has been utilized to teach cadaver anatomy, the course has developed a reputation within the state as one that effectively prepares students for graduate-school success in anatomical studies.

## Conclusion

The initial question when first developing the course was, logistically, could it work? Was it possible to develop a cadaver course that utilized only one cadaver yet, through the implementation of various teaching modalities, kept all students engaged and interested for the entire semester? Would the laboratory approach reinforce the applied anatomical concepts learned in lecture? The assessment over a 10-year period reveals that this model may serve as a viable alternative to the more expensive, traditional program. Fitzpatrick et al. (2001) found higher positive student attitudes and perception when teaching anatomy in a more contextual format over the traditional dissection format. The course frequently has wait lists of more than 40 students and fills within minutes after opening for registration. Students often comment that this course was the highlight of their undergraduate education. Because of overwhelming demand, class size has been increased from 24 in the beginning to 32 students as of 2012, and the department began offering the course during both spring and fall semesters in 2012. The utilization of virtual simulation programs in medical and graduate health-care education, allowing future physicians to perform virtual surgery, is still in developmental stages (Cahill & Leonard, 1997). This may eventually become commonplace, but many would argue that cadaver dissection must continue to be an essential part of the health-care student’s coursework (Azer & Eizenberg, 2007; Sugand et al., 2010). As educational costs rise, institutions and students continue to look for ways to extract the best value for the dollar invested. This proposal meets that need by allowing students the opportunity to dissect the human cadaver through a less expensive, yet effective, alternative teaching model.

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