10 tips for successful online anatomy and physiology instruction

Follow these guidelines to include the goals and activities needed for effective online A&P instruction and student success


This feature is part of our Paramedic Chief Digital Edition, a regular supplement to EMS1.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing paramedic chiefs and EMS leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Spring 2016 issue, click here.

By Dan Limmer

There are some EMT and paramedic education topics, like anatomy and physiology, that we have trouble picturing or conceptualizing how to best teach online. Anatomy and physiology brings to mind long, detailed lectures and labs on things like osmosis and facilitated diffusion.

I believe that many complex topics, including anatomy and physiology, can be taught online or in a hybrid format. Some of the key considerations for effective online instruction include:

1. Make the path and outcomes clear

Students won’t know exactly how to learn the A&P material unless you give them a guide. They won’t know the depth you want them to learn unless you give them examples.

2. Make it relevant

Relevance supports learning. While certain parts of A&P are largely memorization, most things can be helped along by clinical relevance and balancing facts and figures with a bit of pathophysiology.

3. Offer audio and video resources

Reading and looking at A&P images alone isn’t enough. Quick audio podcasts with salient points and short, relevant videos are key to effective instruction. Avoid the temptation to load up on too many videos, GIFs and slide decks. There’s a lot out there, and students will have trouble sorting through what is important when time is short.

4. Offer classroom or online follow-up

Students learning this material on their own will need a human safety net. They’ll need to bounce things off their peers and an instructor to make sure they are on track. Everyone appreciates having a safety net.

5. Sequence exercises from easy to complex

Consider the cognitive domain when choosing online exercises and assignments, just as you would in the classroom. Start the process with simpler assignments and wrap up an online learning module with more complex assignments and tests. Instructors go wrong by either staying in the middle with instruction of moderate difficulty all the time, or by not matching the assignment with the student’s current level of cognitive learning.

Through experience, I believe there are five levels of exercises for online A&P learning:

1. Simple start/refresher

You may think it is too simple to do an exercise in which a student matches a disease to an organ or system, but this eases students in and allows you to see where they stand. Another easy starting exercise would be to ask students to make a crude drawing of the organs in each abdominal quadrant or to label the long bones of a skeleton.

2. Provide a list of diseases and conditions

Give students a list of diseases and have them identify the causative organ or organ system for each disease. Start with some grounders like myocardial infarction and emphysema. Move on to diabetes. Then get a bit more challenging with esophageal varices and cor pulmonale. Your goal should be to have them need to research some of the answers on their own.

3. Facilitated research and note-taking

In this case you are providing the students a list of bullet points and having them fill in the blanks. Do this to guide the students into what they should be learning. You can collect these as assignments if you choose. Students get to research, take notes and get feedback from you, all while creating a lasting study tool. A facilitated research topic might be listing the different components in the immune response (antibody, antigen, mast cells, basophils, histamine, leukotrienes, etc.) and asking your students to describe the role of each of those components.

4. Clinical integration

Add case studies into the mix at this point. This allows students to integrate the first two types of exercises with patient assessment and treatment. Using the immune exercise, give scenarios in which the student would have to predict the chemical mediator or mediators responsible for a patient’s signs and symptoms. A potential pitfall would be getting too deep into teaching the immunology portion of the course, but some instruction is OK. Too much takes a lot of time and muddies the waters. A problem-based learning or case-based instruction approach would incorporate more of the immunology at this point.

5. Comprehensive online examinations

Many instructors agonize over whether students use their books when taking online exams. I just assume they do, so I make the questions tougher. As my friend and paramedic educator Joe Mistovich says, "If you want your students to learn comprehensively, you have to test comprehensively." If your test questions are fluff, students won’t learn. Testing is more than measurement. It sets the tone for what you want your students to learn and how hard they need to work in all aspects of the course.

My last bit of advice is to get in there and try online A&P instruction. Take a chance. Create some online activities. You’ll learn from your first try and improve for the next class.

I’d love to see any specific exercises or hear about your experiences with online A&P. Educators and students may have good and bad experiences to share with me and others in the comments.

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