Top Strategies for Teaching Anatomy and Physiology

Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Weird But True, and other enterprises like them have made an entire business of highlighting the odd, wacky, and incredible things the human body can do. Yet, engaging high school students in a topic that they may feel they already know enough about (after all, don’t we walk around in these bodies every day?!) can be a challenge. Bring anatomy and physiology alive in the classroom setting with these strategies and resources that will draw students in, hold their interest, and maximize their learning.

The Importance of Anatomy & Physiology

Anatomy, or the study of the structure of body parts, and physiology, or the study of the function of body parts, may be offered as a separate course in some high schools or may be integrated into various topics within a biology course, including botany and the human body. Therefore, neither anatomy or physiology is completely new for students in the upper grades. The key is to explore this wide range of topics in a way that students find fresh. But why are anatomy and physiology so important?

  • The study of the structure and function of the body is crucial for the basis of health and medicine. Today’s technology for diagnosis and management, pharmaceutical development and application, and techniques for the treatment or prevention of disease—all depend on anatomy and physiology. Understanding the anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology of our own bodies make us all more science literate—more capable of asking the right questions, understanding relevant concepts, and making sound decisions about our health.
  • An anatomy and physiology course integrates both the life sciences and the physical sciences of physics and chemistry—much like biochemistry—and provides a natural interdisciplinary approach to topics from the simple to the complex, allowing students to begin to understand the relationships between various branches of science.
  • The field of anatomy and physiology is a wonderful example of exploring a single entity—the human body—by breaking the overwhelming expanse of it into systems. The systems can then be examined independently and relative to one another. The skills of analysis, synthesis, and making connections can also be applied across disciplines.
  • Learning anatomy can be a huge exercise in memorization because of the many structures in the body, such as the skeletal and muscular systems. Developing techniques and ability for memorization will serve students in any subject.

An Approach to Teaching Anatomy and Physiology

Not every student in a biology or anatomy and physiology course is interested in pursuing a career in health and medicine in college or professional school. So how do you keep all the students in your classroom engaged in learning? First, students need to feel that the subject matter has relevance in their world. That’s the easiest part; every student in your classroom has a body!

1. Introduce material with a story. Be clear about objectives for the lesson or unit. This may include a list of vocabulary terms and key concepts. Then find resources that will lay a foundation of interest while touching upon these terms and concepts. A news story, podcast, or segment from a network program could fit the bill perfectly. A quick online search can bring up interesting stories that cover just about any organ system.

  • Body Pods podcast. A series of seven podcasts, each is a unique focus on a part of the body and is produced through a collaboration of an artist and a scientist in the field.
  • LiveScience online. Read about some of the strangest medical reports, affecting systems from the eye to the gut.
  • ABC News online. This article covers baffling medical conditions.

Present only the portion that is relevant to the current topic. While some students may find themselves squeamish with any content dealing with the body, do exercise caution in avoiding exploitative or insensitive material.

2. Conduct laboratory activities that allow students to use their own bodies. Everyone has been medically examined using equipment that they may find intimidating and foreign, so allowing students to use simple items to take physiological measurements makes real science reachable. When students understand what these numbers mean and what normal ranges and abnormal values indicate, concepts can be solidified. Get started with these classroom activities:

3.  When real-life experience is impossible, look for the next best thing. Images, animations, videos, and simulations abound in the world of anatomy and physiology for both states of health and disease.

  • The Visible Body. This website has apps of images and simulations that cost, but there is also free content available.
  • Videos Medical. A YouTube channel, this video series shows blood moving through a beating heart or bones and muscles putting the body in motion.
  • MedLinePlus Surgical Procedures. These videos show actual surgeries, from angioplasty to knee replacement. Warning: Some videos can be quite graphic, so preview thoroughly before introducing to students.

4. Explore and solve a medical mystery. Use case studies as a culminating activity to reinforce vocabulary and concepts. Alternatively, case studies could be the primary method for covering a unit. Although a complete inquiry process would most likely take much longer than allowable in a course, allowing students to form groups under a system of their choice would allow for more in-depth examination and understanding. Groups work independently then present their case study, course of action, and conclusions to the entire class. Students work together to learn the anatomical structures and major physiological concepts of their system, common disorders and diseases of the system, and methods and techniques used to examine and assess the system. Students could broaden their resources, reaching out to experts in the field locally or digitally, as available.

Remember to make instruction effective by engaging students right from the beginning, checking in using assessments and questioning, allowing for collaborative learning, and providing feedback throughout the learning process.

For more great anatomy and physiology teaching resources, try our biology worksheets and online biology lessons.

Dana Johnson is a freelance editor and writer specializing in science education. Using every bit of her experience as a corporate and government scientist, high school science teacher, and academic specialist, Dana creates, reviews, and edits premium science materials for secondary and higher education. She currently serves as Help Teaching’s biology subject matter expert. When not working away at her laptop, Dana loves reading, journaling in long hand, gardening, and patronizing the arts.

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