Computer simulation has gained popularity in teaching human anatomy and there is an ongoing debate on whether it is necessary to continue use of human cadavers for anatomy instruction. However, the results of a new study in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education suggests that anatomy students perform better on tests if they have been instructed on cadavers rather than purely on a multimedia learning system. The study comes from researchers based in Michigan State University, Stanford University and Central Michigan University in the USA.
Use of cadavers in anatomy instruction has become increasingly financially costly and computer simulation has cost advantages as well as ever-increasing capabilities. In the USA, most anatomy programmes still make use of cadavers, often supplemented with computer simulation. However, worldwide there is an ongoing debate on the necessity of using cadavers for anatomy instruction, with some medical schools in Australia and the UK dispensing with use of cadavers altogether.
The question to be addressed in the current study was whether use of cadaver-based versus computer-simulation instruction impacted on students’ learning of cadaver-based structures. The research team studied 233 students taking a semester-long undergraduate anatomy lecture course and who were assigned to one of 14 labs. One group was assigned to cadaver-based instruction and was subsequently tested on a cadaver. The other group were assigned to a multimedia learning system and was also tested on a cadaver.
There were two parts to the test, namely identifying parts of the body and explaining how they worked. The students assigned to cadaver-learning scored an average of 16% higher on identification and 11% higher on explanation than the students who learned via computer simulation. The latter finding was considered particularly surprising as the multimedia programme can actually show how parts of the body work, for example blood flow through carotid arteries, whereas cadavers cannot.
Co-author on the study Cary Roseth of Michigan State University, said: “Our findings indicate that educational technology can enhance anatomy instruction but is unlikely to fully replace cadavers.” He noted that the difference in test score between the two student groups was equivalent to the difference in one grade. He suggested that the question to ask is how use of digital technologies can be best balanced with use of cadavers in anatomy instruction. Dr Roseth concluded: “When it comes to learning actual – rather than simulated – human anatomy, the digital representations, even with all of their additional affordances, did not work as well as the cadaver.”
Human cadavers vs. multimedia simulation: a study of student learning in anatomy. Saltarelli AJ, Roseth CJ, Saltarelli WA. Anatomical Sciences Education 7(5): 331–339, September/October 2014. DOI: 10.1002/ase.1429