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  • Writer's pictureAngelo Sotto

Student Perspectives: Remote Gross Anatomy Instruction during COVID-19

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many classrooms have had to transition from in-person learning to online remote learning. Not surprisingly, this transition has been inherently easier for particular types of courses, and harder for others - such as laboratory courses with a practical, hands-on component.

As described in two of our recent publications [1,2], many anatomy educators were told to shift their in-person courses to a virtual platform at the onset of the pandemic - including, but not limited to, lectures, assessments, and practical activities such as learning from cadaveric prosections. This created unique challenges for both students and educators alike, but also presented the opportunity to expand other means of instruction.

For Dr. Bentley’s undergraduate Anatomy Dissection class (ANA400H1) in Winter 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a transition from in-person, cadaveric dissections to a plethora of online resources including dissection videos, modules, and synchronous journal club sessions. “Before the pandemic, the course was organized into two

sessions per week (on Tuesday [and] Thursday),” described Stephen Magliocchetti, one of the ANA400H1 students in the Winter 2020 cohort, now pursuing an MSc in Anatomical Sciences at Queen’s University. “Tuesdays were used as our journal club day as well as our dissection prep day. On the following Thursday, the group dissected [a specific region,” he continued. Unfortunately, the pandemic abruptly disrupted the in-person components of the course. “Since we could no longer dissect, Dr. Bentley provided dissection videos related to the dissections we could not complete.”

Dr. Bentley's remote recording setup for the creation of videos for her remote ANA400H1 class in Winter 2020. Pictured are her computer, microphone, notes, and a camera angled down on a plastic skull model.

Pictured: A "behind-the-scenes" snapshot of Dr. Bentley's ANA400H1 recording setup! In lieu of in-person cadaveric dissections, one way she facilitated students' transition to remote learning was through the creation of videos guiding students through different anatomical models.

Although the online resources were unable to fully replace the experience of in-person dissection, Stephen mentions that the promptness with which they were provided meant that the course schedule would be uninterrupted: “Myself and the rest of the class were understandably disappointed about the transition, but were also glad that our professor had a plan in place to create the best possible experience for her students”. And these sentiments were also shared by other students of the same ANA400H1 cohort: “Overall, this was a good alternative for at-home learning. The effort and time that was put into a quick transition for the course allowed me to gain valuable knowledge that I was able to take with me,” said Leah Velikonja, also pursuing an MSc in Anatomical Sciences at Queen’s University.

Dr. Bentley's remote setup for teaching embryology for the MD Program at the University of Toronto. Pictured are two laptops, a microphone, and various desk decorations and essentials (headphones, glasses, etc.) to facilitate remote instruction.

Pictured: Dr. Bentley's setup for remote teaching of embryology for the MD Program at the University of Toronto

For many students, it seems that a quick, seamless transition was a key element of virtual instruction that supported academic success during the COVID-19 pandemic. But of course, online learning, specifically in anatomical sciences, came with limitations. Some students felt that changes in how instruction was delivered impacted their performance and retention of concepts. Others put a lot more value on practical experiences such as clinical sessions, or prosections, and felt that they were missing out on these during the pandemic. Importantly, it is also easy to feel disconnected from course instructors and faculty as a remote learner.

The transition to online learning also came at a surprise to educators. Many course instructors had to create and implement unfamiliar course adaptations to ensure accessibility to all students. An additional challenge was that of fairness - with in-person, closed-book tests paused during the pandemic, educators had to come up with innovative assessments that would be fair for all students in the remote setting. As described in our publication, many educators opted for computer-based assessments during COVID-19 with assessment materials in anatomy largely changing from cadaveric material to images.

Educators and students alike definitely had to make the most out of online learning during COVID-19, prompting a change in the way learning is delivered and the way instructional content is consumed. How did COVID-19 change learning for you? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Two recent publications by the ATLAS Research Lab, “An Analysis of Anatomy Education Before and During Covid-19: May–August 2020” and “An Analysis of Anatomy Education Before and During Covid-19: August-December 2020” are now available to view here [1] and here [2].

  1. Harmon DJ, Attardi SM, Barremkala M, Bentley DC, Brown KM, Dennis JF, Goldman HM, Harrell KM, Klein BA, Ramnanan CJ, Richtsmeier JT, Farkas GJ. 2021. An Analysis of Anatomy Education Before and During Covid-19: May-August 2020. Anatomical Sciences Education. 14(2):132-147.

  2. Attardi SM, Harmon DJ, Barremkala M, Bentley DC, Brown KM, Dennis JF, Goldman HM, Harrell KM, Klein BA, Ramnanan CJ, Farkas GJ. 2021. An analysis of anatomy education before and during Covid-19: August-December 2020. Anatomical Sciences Education. 15(1):5-26.



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