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The Anatomy of Learning
From Jim Thompson, Dean, UTCVM

Gross anatomy class. Over the years those words have struck fear in many veterinary students’ hearts. Even the memory of the class can cause practicing veterinarians to break into a cold sweat. Dr. Robert Reed, associate professor in our Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, is determined to change that through a new summer anatomy boot camp.

Robert teaches small animal gross anatomy in the fall and large animal gross anatomy in the spring to first-year veterinary students, presenting foundational material upon which all of veterinary medicine builds. For example, where do you put your stethoscope head to listen for different gut sounds in the equine abdominal cavity? It all starts with anatomy, and Robert has a passion for ensuring our students understand both anatomic structure and function.

Our faculty continuously examine their teaching methods to enhance and improve the learning experience of our students. Robert has refined the anatomy courses over the years, but every semester students say, “I wish I had anatomy before I got here,” or “The anatomy class I had elsewhere didn’t help me.” That prompted Robert to look for ways to prepare students before their first year of veterinary school, and so the anatomy boot camp was born.

The problem with studying anatomy is volume—the amount of material students must learn lends itself to a tremendous amount of stress. The first anatomy boot camp (a two-week, six hours a day, non-credit course) was held this summer. Six rising second-year and one rising third-year student served as teaching assistants. Designed to take away the stress and fear of anatomy, the boot camp gives students an opportunity to learn about 75 percent of the material covered in the semester dissection laboratories, along with basic dissection techniques. Robert compares it to learning the football plays and assignment responsibilities during the summer and getting to the ballgame in the fall, ultimately alleviating some of the stress and facilitating success. Instead of hearing “caudal circumflex humeral artery” and saying, “Oh no. I’m not going to remember that,” the students are familiar with it. That should help lessen the stress and give them a head start on what they are going to see during the semester.

About one-third of the incoming first-year veterinary students participated in the program. This semester, Robert stationed at least one summer participant at each fall semester dissection table. He can already tell a difference with fewer rudimentary questions, smoother labs, familiarity with laboratory techniques, and improved test grades.

We hope to learn from the boot camp participants. Does the experience make anatomy easier? Does it decrease academic stress? Does it help with work/life balance? Does it increase students’ confidence level in anatomy? Does it enhance their academic performance?

Consistently re-evaluating our teaching methods helps us meet the needs of these and future veterinary students so we can always say teaching is job one at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine.