Getting Them out of Their Funk

Muscles and bones, bones and muscles. How many times have my students learned the deltoid tuberosity in the bone unit, only to complain that they have to learn all these bone names as part of their muscle attachments?! Many of my students come in thinking they are going to simply learn the names of the bones, having little understanding that there is a whole world of terms for bone landmarks. To help my novice students become proficient, I have made two changes.

muscle-attachmentsHistorically, my labs followed a 2 week period of appendicular and then axial bones, followed by a 2 week period of appendicular and then axial muscles. My students scraped an average of around 67% on their weekly practical quizzes. They always did slightly better with their bones, and then much worse with their muscles in part due to that muscle attachment component. I wanted more, so I flipped to appendicular bones one week, followed by appendicular muscles the next week. Their averages went up to 78% for the unit, but I still got a little of the whining related to bone landmarks. Their scores were higher on bone weeks and lower on muscle weeks, so I switched to regional study of the body, bones and muscles of the leg one week, the arm the next and so forth.  For the last three years, my averages for this unit have settled around 75%, but the students are making the connections between bone landmarks and their muscle attachments.

muscle-to-attachmentI remember when I took A&P, my lab instructor handed me a Rubbermaid with the bones for that week and said, “Get to it!” I had the “luxury” of having previously taken  Comparative Anatomy class, so 5 of my peers worked with me to learn the material. Most of my peers left lab and were overwhelmed. So when I started teaching A&P, I tried to help the students whose strategies mimicked my classmates’, but I kept running into an almost total mental shut down the moment I handed out their term list for the week. So I made a second change. Now my labs have 6 stations and students spend about 15-20 minutes at each station. Each station has an objective, which also helps the students chunk up the material into manageable pieces.

skeletonJust what can you do at these stations? One is the dissection/prosection table with the cadaver or cat. One is a pile of bones and they have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again – recognizing left vs right and what the bone names are. Another station has a plastic skeleton with felt muscles and scotch tape to study origin, insertion, action. I have brought in Halloween skeleton decorations and asked the students to look for anatomical inconsistencies. Another table has a few bones with the goal of identifying the landmarks from their list of terms.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t get to every student, but I have noticed is I now have students who either pass their lab quiz well, or they really, really don’t pass. There aren’t so many in the middle. It tells me the students who are studying, vs not spending the time studying and I have fewer students who are all out “tanking with pride,” as I call it. It seems to be working. A student came to me yesterday and told me that she had attempted to take A&P at another institution, but she got so lost in all the material, she didn’t know where to start. She felt my lab set up helped her divide and conquer the content into manageable pieces.

It’s easy to become complacent with our students, and forget that sometimes our students need ideas presented in a way that helps them begin to categorize and learn the material. What is so simple to us may be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back for them.  It’s a lot of work to help our students figure out where to start and learn how to be a learner, but so rewarding when it works.


Nichole Warwick teaches biology at Clatsop Community College and is a proud member of the HAPS Communications Committee.

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