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5 Tips for Teaching Anatomy for the First Time

teaching anatomy

It’s that time of year again – back-to-school season! Depending on where you live, you may already be back in school, or you could still be hanging on to the last few weeks of blissful summertime. Some of you are just now receiving your teaching schedules for the year and seeing that you are teaching anatomy for the first time!

This could totally excite you or totally terrify you. Either way, I am here to help! Anatomy is one of my all-time favorite classes, and I am here to share with you 5 tips for teaching anatomy that will help you AND your students fall in love with this course!

Teaching Anatomy Tip #1: Stick to YOUR goal for YOUR class.

teaching anatomy

Here’s the deal that makes anatomy different from most science courses – most high schools classify anatomy and physiology as an “elective science”. Even if your state has established standards for teaching anatomy, you most likely still have SOME flexibility there in terms of the breadth and depth of what you decide to teach. This is the beauty of teaching a class that doesn’t end in an EOC or AP exam!

So here is the MOST important thing to do before you begin teaching anatomy (or really ANY elective science course) –> decide on YOUR goals for the class!

Ask yourself:

  • What do I care MOST about my students learning from this course?
  • Do I care most about terminology and them knowing ALL the terms they will come across in college A&P?
  • Do I care most about covering every system?
  • Do I care most about them knowing the systems in GREAT detail (even if that means covering fewer systems)?
  • Do I care most about giving them the most solid foundation possible pre-college?
  • Do I care most about inspiring them to love the subject?

I know that you can care and desire multiple things on this list but you can only care about ONE thing the MOST – and that’s what I want you to really consider.

Personally, I decided I cared most about getting my students to fall in love with the subject because here is the deal – if my students love the subject, they are going to have to take it again in college anyway. I would rather use the time I have in my course to inspire a love for the human body and save the memorization and the nitty gritty details for when they inevitably take anatomy and physiology again later on.

Another thing to consider – read the room. What types of students take your course? Is your classroom full of AP bio students or students just trying to get their 3rd lab science credit to graduate? Or maybe it is a mixed crowd like I had. If this is the case, I especially urge you to consider the route of covering the big picture rather than ALL of the details in order to serve the majority of your students. Every student can benefit from a growing appreciation for the complexities of the human body – not every student will benefit from memorizing all 206 bones.

So for me, my anatomy course is more about giving students an overview of EVERY system, inspiring them to love the subject, and including as many real-world examples as possible to engage them. Speaking of the real world…

Teaching Anatomy Tip #2: Prioritize real-world application!!

teaching anatomy

I don’t know if there is an opportunity that has as much potential for real-world application as teaching anatomy does! It is such an easy course to relate to them because every student in your classroom has a body 🤪 and it is SO important for us as high school science teachers, especially, to keep science relevant for our students. We can do that without much effort in an anatomy class!

Of course, I know when we think of real-world application with anatomy, we immediately think of teaching about diseases and disorders – and there is NOTHING wrong with this! In a generation of true crime junkies and binge-worthy docuseries on the rarest of medical maladies, this is a great way to engage our students in anatomy and get them to see the relevancy of the content in the real world. But that isn’t ALL we can do!

I think a missed opportunity in most anatomy courses is the opportunity to teach our students critical skills. And I’m not just talking about dissection skills, that only a fraction of our students will potentially use in their future vocations. I am talking about REAL LIFE skills that they can use as a future mom, a coworker in any field, or even as a pedestrian on the street who witnesses a medical emergency.

What about teaching your students CPR in your cardiovascular unit? Collaborate with your school’s health teacher or even better, the local fire department, to bring in EMTs to teach your students.

What about teaching your students how to use a tourniquet? Hopefully, this is a skill your students will never NEED to utilize but how awesome would it be to equip our students with a life-saving survival skill like this?

I really love the opportunity that incorporating these skills allows for bringing outside professionals into the classroom. Teaching anatomy is an EPIC way to engage the community in your classroom!

Teaching Anatomy Tip #3: Get them doing RESEARCH!

teaching anatomy

Teaching anatomy is also an AMAZING opportunity to get your students doing research on a daily basis. And what a great skill we could have all of our students leave our class with – the ability to ask questions, research answers, and come up with CITED evidence-based conclusions.

If there is one thing the last few years have taught me, it is that our students are DAILY forming opinions about critical social issues ENTIRELY based on click-bait social media posts they consume on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. Now, more than ever, it is critical we teach our students HOW to do scientific research, assess if claims are backed by evidence, and how to make their OWN claims backed by evidence and reasoning.

An anatomy class is prime for doing exactly this. Let’s be real – physics hasn’t changed much since the days of Isaac Newton. I LOVE physics but there is only so much you can do to refute the basic laws of nature that physics supports.

Anatomy, on the other hand, is a subject that is changing on an almost DAILY basis as new medical discoveries arise. If there is only one thing I can urge you to do in this post, it is to prioritize getting your students to do research (and cite their sources!!) in your anatomy class!

But that’s not the ONLY thing I want to urge you to do. If you are teaching anatomy this school year I really want you to consider re-orienting your scope and sequence to put an emphasis on the interconnectedness of the systems in the human body.

Teaching Anatomy Tip #4: Emphasize the interconnectedness of the systems.

teaching anatomy

I think when most of us took anatomy and physiology in high school our class followed a predictable sequence: read about a body system in the textbook, label a diagram of the system with all of the parts, memorize the names of the structures, be assessed on these names, and learn a bit of the physiology of the system, too. Rinse, and repeat, x 12 for all of the body systems.

One of the things I REALLY wanted to do differently when I started teaching anatomy was to have my students truly appreciate the beautiful interconnectedness of all the systems within the human body. Because of this, instead of teaching and assessing each system in isolation, I decided to group the systems within an overarching theme and teach them in chunks. For example, I teach the nervous system, the senses, and the endocrine system all under the umbrella of my Control and Coordination unit. You can read more about how I chunk up the systems and the sequence of my course here.

I also try to have a project or test question that ends every unit that ties all the systems we have learned thus far together. I want a constant refrain of my anatomy course to be, “How do these systems work together to maintain homeostasis in the body?”

I have a traditional anatomy final exam included in my anatomy exam pack, but honestly, my ideal final exam when teaching anatomy is literally just asking students to write a 3.5-paragraph essay with 3 detailed examples of how the systems work together to maintain homeostasis. I LOVE doing alternative summative assessments like this, and you can read more about specific ideas for alternative final exams in this blog post.

Last but not least, is a teaching tip for anatomy teachers that is by no means necessary, but goodness is it FUN!

Teaching Anatomy Tip #5: Take advantage of seasonal opportunities!

teaching anatomy

Anatomy and physiology is one of those courses that just LENDS itself to celebrating the holidays while still keeping the content relevant. I love to incorporate seasonal activities with how I sequence my anatomy course.

For example, Halloween is a great opportunity to have your students research something gory. I know many like to do a pickle autopsy around this time of year (which I love!) but if you are looking for something a little simpler, you can download my free Halloween science activities here.

I love to do something related to the cardiovascular system for Valentine’s Day and personally, I also love to save the integumentary system for springtime (I teach it alongside the immune and lymphatic systems in my Protection unit) and take advantage of the spring sunshine to do a UV exposure investigation. These are just a few examples of what you can do to keep the content seasonally relevant!

I hope these tips help to inspire you if you are teaching anatomy for the first time this school year!

Looking for more help when it comes to teaching anatomy and physiology? Here are 5 reasons why the It’s Not Rocket Science anatomy curriculum ROCKS!

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