On the level of detail in an Anatomy course

9781435114937_p0_v2_s192x300How much detail should a high school Anatomy student be expected to master? Is it the same level of detail as a college student taking a similar course? Why or why not?

I teach Anatomy and Physiology at the high school level and offer that course as concurrent credit with our local junior college. The current arrangement is that one semester of high school anatomy grants one semester of college credit (after earning a C or better). A student interested in going into nursing or medicine can leave my Anatomy course with 8 college credits and get some prerequisite courses out of the way.

I recently had a great talk with the anatomy instructor at the junior college about how we run our anatomy courses. I showed her the portfolio-based documentation that we use and also looked at some of the tests that I give.

My overall impression of the differences between the college and high school anatomy courses from this discussion can be summarized as follows:

  1. I spend a lot of course time having students design labs that measure various aspects of human physiology. This does not appear to happen as often at the college level.
  2. My evaluation system is primarily based on collecting evidence of performances of practices of science rather than a focus solely on content-area vocabulary and concepts. Grades at the college level seem to be solely determined by exams that test content-area vocabulary and concepts (including my own junior college course that I teach in the summer).
  3. The pace of the high school course is slower than that of the college course, so much so that some concepts that should be “covered” in the fall semester (according to the college syllabus) are not encountered until spring and spring semester units are very short compared to the college.
  4. The level of detail (vocabulary and concepts) that college students are expected to master far exceeds that seen in my high school classes. An example would be the muscular system unit for which I have students learn muscle physiology, but not the names and locations of most major muscle groups, as the college does. We do learn many muscle names and locations through the cat dissection later in the year, however.
  5. The college instructor reported that a large percentage of students drop the course in the first few weeks whereas my students generally stay in for an entire semester, if not an entire year.

TL;DR of the above conversation: High school anatomy class is being taught very differently than the college version, but for the same credit.

Is this a problem? If so, what are possible solutions?

Most likely the junior college, given the current focus on its accreditation review, would consider this a problem. Students not on their campus are being granted credit for a different set of work than those on campus.

But is different “bad” or undeserving of college credit in this case? Maybe. It depends upon what we are issuing college credit for.

What should the goal of an Anatomy and Physiology class be? We should award “credit” based on whether these goals have been met or not. I can think of at least a few possible underlying philosophies that we might apply as the stated aims of this course:

  1. Students learn about the structure and function of their own bodies so as to make healthy, informed choices both now and in future medical care for themselves and their families.
  2. Students practice lab design, data collection, and scientific argumentation in the field of human anatomy and physiology.
  3. Students gain a solid understanding and appreciation of medical concepts that will inspire them to pursue a career in the medical field.
  4. Students learn detailed medical terminology in order to pass future examinations such as the MCAT and nursing boards.

Right now I operate my class from a mashup of the first three, with a minor emphasis on the 4th. I am almost certain that the college course primarily follows the 4th philosophy.

How then do we reconcile the issuance of credit for these very different goals? Ultimately, the college holds the trump card in that they are the issuing authority of the credit. If they decide that high school students should take the same exact exams as the college students, then that level of detail will need to be taught and the pace of the course quickened, probably at the expense of lab experiences.

But should it? I’ll end with this pondering:

Would it be better to not offer concurrent credit for this anatomy course and continue to focus on goals 1-3 or should I move the concurrent credit course towards a faster-paced, more test-prep focus to match the college more closely?

Comments welcome, as always.


7 thoughts on “On the level of detail in an Anatomy course

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps

    I would argue in favor of dropping the concurrent credit and focussing on goals 1–3. Very few students get much use out of the concurrent credit units, other than as a minor bonus at college admissions time. And they could probably get about the same bonus by making the course an honors course.

    There is some point to courses that pursue goal 4, but students who really need the vocabulary for MCAT can buy a set of flashcards to study from—practicing lab design and data collection on one’s own is much harder.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Excellent advice. It would be hard for me to abandon the lab/scientific practices focus that I’ve worked hard to develop over the last few years.

      A middle ground might also be to only offer one semester’s worth of college credit for the entire year of high school anatomy, as I do for my Biology course. That would allow me to take time for labs without having to cram so much material into one semester. Right now I have to match the college more or less exactly, semester for semester, which results in the problems described above.

  2. Pam

    I would say drop the concurrent credit and focus on goals 1-3. Students who ultimately end up pursuing a career in the medical profession won’t be harmed by retaking A&P at the college level. In fact, with a solid foundation at the HS level, they will be better prepared at the college level. If they are ultimately going to end up in a medical career, the extra exposure won’t hurt them. I took anatomy and physiology separately in college. Anatomy was taught in the fall and physiology in the spring. We moved so quickly that I did “memorize and dump” to survive. I spent 9 years working the clinical laboratory field before entering the teaching field. I don’t feel like a “truly” understood A&P until I began teaching it. A lot of that is b/c my focus was less on #4 and more on 1-3.

  3. Ericka

    I agree with dropping the concurrent credit. We as teachers never want to do our students any injustice by not having them as prepared as they could be for the next level of learning. I teach Anatomy and Physiology on a high school level as well. When I took the class in college, it is different to how I am teaching it on the high school level. I am teaching slower, and realized I had to accomplish your 1-3 goals. The terminology I give with each chapter, but it isn’t the focus. I have my students research certain topics that give insight to the system we are working with to try to add to the course. But I did realize that many of my students are not 100% sure where in the medical field they want to be or if that is really what they want. They do enjoy learning about their body and the functions. The course helps them connect the textbook to everyday life. For me, teaching A&P has become a more in depth health course. I teach both here.

    I was thinking maybe if there was offered a class for students who are quite sure they are going into the medical field. They can have all four goals, and their curriculum is a mirror of the college course. This course is more rigorous. Or even adding a medical terminology partnership with the local college for those interested. Anatomy and Physiology is a tough class on all levels regardless. But if it is a credit for college, the student should be able to pass the college exams. To me high school A&P is more of a introduction class. We are giving them a foundation to then move on to the next level.

    If it is ok with you, I would love to use your goals in my class. It will be my objectives as an Anatomy and Physiology teacher.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Ericka and Pam,

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I’m going through the process now of scaling back the concurrent credit offered but not dropping it altogether. I plan on switching the anatomy course to be worth only one semester’s worth of college credit, rather than a full year, which is how I operate my biology course. One year of high school bio or anatomy will be worth one semester of college credit if the student is successful in meeting the course standards.

      I think that by scaling back on the college credit offered, I can remove the burden of having to “cover” so much material and can focus more on goals 1-3, as you mention. This has worked well in biology so the anatomy course needs to move in that direction too.

  4. Jeremy Salo

    The intensity of my sigh is matched only by the fondness of my memories of being in your A&P class.

    Chris, you’ve posed a tough question that I’m hardly knowledgeable enough to answer, and this being my first comment after a long time lurking means that I feel unprepared to coherently respond. But it pains me to know that you have to put so much thought into co-existing with a system that I think often hurts high school level education.

    I apologize in advance for the very long blab.

    Of the 4 goals or philosophies you propose, I think #2 is the only truly crucial one and #4 can go fly a kite.

    How many students in the last ten A&P classes you’ve taught have gone into the medical field? I can’t guess but I wouldn’t dare suggest more than half (or even very close to it). Partially for that reason I think you’re very much on the right track with cutting the jargon out of class and getting to the learning. Teaching a separate class for students confident that they’re seeking a medical career is an interesting idea but it sounds impractical, especially for where you teach right now.

    And though it may sound a little bit blasphemous, who gives a hoot about content? Goals #1 and #3 are well and good and their presence in a high school A&P course is appreciated, but in truth #2 is where it’s at. For instance, I think your A&P class was fantastic for me….yet I’ve forgotten a great deal of the content by now (though to pick it back up all I need to do is check the blog I wrote for the class to relearn it all in my own words. Good stuff, that).

    The reason your A&P class is so great is that it focuses on employing the scientific method. Setting things up, seeing what happens, TALKING about it. It doesn’t really matter what the things being set up and talked about are. A&P was so great because more than nearly any other class I took in high school, it was rigorous practice in Learning Things and Doing Things. Really engaging with ideas, digesting them, being able to communicate them, THAT’s what you gave to me and my fellow students. While I may still remember the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction and be awed by it, most of your then-students……don’t. Instead the practice in working hard to understand things, gaining knowledge, and working first hand on solving problems is what has stuck with them. We got better at learning.

    Now for the reason for my sigh. How on earth your high school class that is so valuable for any student willing to work hard ISN’T more worthy of college credit than the class being taught in the junior college beats me. Most of the classes I’ve taken in college and high school have been far less effective in both teaching content and universal learning skills than your A&P class. Perhaps it’s my own curmudgeony bias talking, but I’ll identify the culprit as I see it: A gross overemphasis on teaching content-related words that provide answers on tests. No substance, nothing truly applicable in terms of learning to leverage knowledge, just the transient satisfaction of knowing your Key Terms and having a grasp of what the instructor needs you to say for that passing grade. For the last ten weeks I took a rigorous course on super-rapidly prototyping physical games. We spent an adequate (light) amount of time discussing the relevant game design principles, but our coursework? Making games. Our tests? Making games. Whether a student absorbed right words was far less important than if a student learned to apply the scientific method to rapid game creation by trying it themselves. Being in that class felt like being home, since I was reminded of your A&P class by how much voracious experimenting I did; finding interesting problems, trying solutions, documenting evidence (and even posting it to a blog, there’s another feather in your cap I suppose).

    My point is that you’re doing good stuff Chris. Keep your methodology, and if you have to scale back your level of concurrent credit know that your classes are truly worth far more than some number, in the eyes of at least this student.

    I hope I’ve made myself somewhat intelligible.

  5. Joe Rineer

    Hi Chris.

    I currently teach A&P I and II at a community college. I taught various sciences- mostly biology but no A&P- for ten years at the high school level. I too began implementing SBG and modelling instruction in my classroom prior to working at the collegiate level.

    Our institution participates in a dual enrollment program with some of the surrounding high schools and one of the issues when starting the program was that the “rigor” had to be the same at the high schools as it was at the college. This translates to: you must cover all of the content on the syllabus. It would be impossible to cover the material for both of our A&P courses in a year long course in high school due to time constraints in the high school schedule. Our institutions grading system is also different in that students must have a 75% or higher in both the lab and lecture in order to pass the class. We use an A, B, C, and F grading scale.

    The content we use is determined by discussing what knowledge and skills the students need to know in order to be successful in their allied health or nursing programs. We sit down with the faculty from the various programs every few years and listen to what their current students struggle with (concepts, skills) that are within the scope of our courses. We then modify our courses based on their feedback. Ironically, the faculty from the programs have asked us to cover what I originally thought was an ungodly amount of trivial knowledge and vocabulary. However, after several years at the college and multiple discussions around the subject I am beginning to understand that our students must have this base knowledge upon entering their programs. They are immediately thrown into situations that require them to know the majority of the material with minimal review. Our nursing program has begun utilizing more of a problem based learning approach, so the students must have the prior knowledge of both anatomy and physiology in order to complete the problems.

    Looking at the bigger picture, I would not want to take my kids to the emergency room or nurse practitioner for a broken arm where I saw one of my former students and I knew they were in a class where I didn’t get to the skeletal system. Another reason we must ensure the students learn all of the “trivial” information is to pass their licensure exams, which comes back to your goal #4. While this does not seem like it should matter, our accreditation is partly tied into the percentage of students that pass these exams. Unfortunately, there are questions on these exams that directly relate to the trivial information- how many pairs of ribs? how many spinal nerves? Identify the parts of an osteon or kidney, etc.- that is learned in the A&P courses.

    To answer your question about whether you should drop the concurrent credit, I believe you must ask yourself a few questions. What are the students’ plans after high school? If they plan to enroll in a health related program such as allied health, nursing or MD school, then you may want to retain the concurrent credit with the college and continue teaching all of the material. If you find that your students are taking the class to learn about A&P but are not planning on enrolling in a health related program, then drop the concurrent credit and teach the course more in-depth even though you may not cover all of the topics.

    While I do appreciate Jeremy’s comment and I agree with the a lot of his thoughts, I must say that the courses in our institution are designed to build on one another. In order for the students to be successful, they must learn the content. Anatomy and physiology is a different beast than other science courses. Learning recall information is part of the course and is int he name- Anatomy. Anatomy is the identification of parts and the understanding of the relationship between the parts to work as a whole. It is very low level on the comprehension scale, but it is a necessary evil in my opinion. I am sure that you can weave the learning of the
    “universal skills” into your course.

    I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and would love to find a way to incorporate the modelling instruction aspect into my A&P courses. I have also looked into strategies like POGIL, PBL, Learning Communities and several others to utilize in my courses all in the hopes of getting away from the rote memorization of the facts all while ensuring that the students learn those facts. While I do believe that students retain the information better utilizing these types of strategies, I also know from experience that they take more time which means the students will not learn all of the information they will be required to know for the future courses in their program. This is the age old question, “Do we teach an inch wide and a mile deep or do we teach an inch deep and a mile wide?” Unfortunately for Human A&P courses that are directly linked to health related programs, I feel the latter is necessary. I have discussed this at length with other instructors that teach different science courses, at HAPS conferences, with former students and the faculty of the major programs. We all seem to be in the same boat with the content.

    Something to consider is that there are multiple institutions that teach anatomy and physiology separately especially medical schools. Could you just teach physiology while retaining the concurrent credits? This would seem to fit your desired style of instruction.

    The biggest difference between students taking A&P in high school and college is the reason they may be taking the course. The problem with education is that it really is unlike any other profession. We have students that desire to meet different goals- some may want to enter a medical profession while other students may want to take the A&P course solely for the college credit or because they like your style of teaching. Although they have different goals and expectations, they must all meet the same set of criteria in order to receive the college credit. Let’s look at this as if we were trainers and had clients that wanted to meet different fitness goals. Some of the students or clients wanted to increase their strength, some want to increase their work capacity and some just want to lose a little weight. We would have to design different programs to meet each of their goals. In this situation, this would be totally feasible whereas it is very difficult to meet the various goals of our students in a single course. We can use different approaches to get the students to the preset goal, but they must all arrive at the same goal.

    Sorry about the rambling and lack of answers but I do believe this struggle is real in all A&P courses. If you do happen to stumble upon the holy grail for this problem I hope that you continue to share. Again, I would look into the goals of the students taking the A&P exam before making a decision.


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