Teaching anatomy is becoming increasingly challenging due to the progressive evolution of university teaching missions, student populations, medical and undergraduate curricula, coupled with a paucity of empirically tested evidence-based instructional practices in the anatomical and medical education literature. As a mechanism to confront these pedagogical challenges, recent advances in educational psychology are analyzed for developing a framework to guide educational reform efforts. Extensive research in educational psychology over the last 100 years has resulted in four major theories on human learning that have facilitated a paradigm shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered classrooms and are described here in temporal order of development: behavioral theory, information processing theory, metacognitive theory, and social constructivist theory. Each theory is analyzed in detail and is used to construct instructional design principles for enhancing anatomical education research and practice. An example of a cognitively based learning environment for an undergraduate anatomy course is presented. Preliminary results suggest that intentionally drawing on different theories of learning when making instructional decisions gave students the learning support they needed to be successful and nearly doubled the course's student retention rate over a 3-year period. Anat Rec (Part B: New Anat) 289B:252–260, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.