Background: While the effectiveness of teaching human topographical anatomy by groups of medical students carrying out embalmed cadaver dissections has been recognized for centuries, the mechanisms by which this teaching is so effective have not been well described.
Methods: In the recently reintroduced 7-week elective anatomy by whole body dissection course for senior medical students at Sydney Medical School, team-based learning (TBL) principles were used in the course design and implementation. In the 2011 course, 42 senior medical students participated. The effectiveness of TBL pedagogy was assessed by knowledge acquisition and retention and by administration of a questionnaire to evaluate the impact of the principles of this pedagogy.
Results: The course produced a marked increase in topographical anatomical knowledge. The median pre-course assessment score was 9/20 (interquartile range 5) and the median post-course assessment score was 19.5/20 (interquartile range 1.75). The difference was statistically significant (P < 0.001). There was near universal agreement by students that five key principles of TBL (small groups, instructor selected allocation to groups, regular assessments, inter- and intra-group competitiveness, and prescribed out-of-class preparation), contributed to this knowledge acquisition.
Conclusion: The application of TBL methodology to teaching human anatomy by dissection enables a large group of students to have small group experiences without a large number of teachers. It results in effective acquisition of topographical anatomical knowledge and appears to provide better acquisition of such knowledge than the previous methods of anatomy teaching to which these students had been exposed.