Context Discussions about dissection as a teaching method in gross anatomy are characterised by a lack of objective evidence.
Methods A search for such evidence in the literature produced 14 relevant papers. These were reviewed for objective data on the effect of cadaver dissection on cognitive learning outcomes.
Results All reviewed studies compared groups of students exposed to different teaching approaches, including active dissection, learning on prosected material, or a combination with computerised teaching aids. Study and course designs varied substantially and student groups compared were not always homogeneous. In all studies, compared learning experiences differed in more than 1 variable, and assessment of anatomical knowledge was not standardised.
Discussion It is difficult to interpret and generalise from the results of the reviewed studies. Considering the bias that must be assumed for teachers who develop new course designs and compare these with traditional ones, the review shows a slight advantage for traditional dissection over prosection.
Conclusions More sophisticated research designs may be necessary to solve the general problem of the small measurable impact of educational interventions and to come to scientifically sound conclusions about the best way to teach gross anatomy. Such research will have to include sufficient sample sizes, the use of validated assessment instruments, and a discussion of the educational significance of measured differences. More educational research in anatomy is necessary to counterbalance emotional arguments about dissection with scientific evidence. Anatomical knowledge is too important to future doctors to leave its teaching to the educational fashion of the day.