Long ago, as my comrades and I plowed through the mountain of work that was medical school, we sometimes wondered just how tall four years’ worth of books, notes, journals, and patient charts would be if we could view it all in a heap. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see it. Most of that material didn’t really stick with me at the time. Oh, I learned enough to pass the required exams and boards, but most of that knowledge floated near the surface of my brain, and a lot of it floated off fairly quickly.
Later, I had real patients, people who were depending on me to figure out what was wrong with them and what to do about it. The abstract knowledge acquired during training helped me to know where to go for answers. Common and obscure diseases suddenly had faces attached to them, and that made learning more fascinating and important than ever before. Few things are more pleasurable than using knowledge to help another person.
My students are usually at the very beginning of their journeys to become health care providers. They are eager and interested, but also easily overwhelmed and dismayed (as I was) by the depth and breadth of what they must learn. I began to wonder if attaching a “face” or a real medical task to the content of courses in anatomy and physiology might offer a more pleasurable and profitable experience for my learners.
Of course, this sounded like work. Where will I get these vignettes? How will I present them? How will I know if this strategy works? Some of these questions remain to be answered, but I’m off to a good start. And students seem to be responding. The first chapter of A&P I deals with the language of anatomy, especially directional and regional terms. I needed something that would help my novices feel a bit like “insiders” without overwhelming them. As I perused descriptions of medical procedures, I rejected most as overwhelmingly complex for beginners (appendectomy) or too gruesome (amputation). I finally settled on a set of directions for applying a plaster elbow splint. Students were quick to pick out terms they had just learned: proximal, distal, ulnar, radial, and so on. The exercise seemed to convince them that terminology is worth learning.
A&P II begins with the endocrine system. My “virtual larder” already contained a very detailed newspaper story about a young woman living with a recurrent pituitary tumor that profoundly affects her life. The article uses everyday English to explain these problems in some detail without using anatomic language. After a few days of learning endocrine anatomy and physiology, my students were able to identify the structures and hormones involved. Applying their newly minted knowledge to a real person’s problems made learning more pleasurable and, I hope, more lasting.
Next week this class will study the reproductive system. Students are usually very interested in the topic, asking lots of questions and sometimes sharing too much information. I plan to find a good story about a couple facing fertility evaluation and treatment to enhance our discussion. First semester students will soon be studying cell physiology. I’ve found a compelling video about a teen with progeria, and that should help students connect cell structure and protein synthesis to a very interesting but heartbreaking problem.
I’m not sure how far I’ll get with this project this term, but I know that I’m learning a lot as I search for and edit these stories. Meeting an achievable challenge is a pleasure in learning for the teacher, too.