Skip to main content

Preparing Professional Students for Anatomy Curricula


Educators in professional schools, whether it be human medical or veterinary medical, place importance on ensuring the students who pass through their courses are adequately prepared for subsequent coursework in their academic career, and/or clinical rotations and clerkships. This is true for anatomy educators, as proper anatomy knowledge is the foundation for practicing medicine. Often, anatomy is the first course students are exposed to when they step in the door of their professional curriculum. Anatomy educators get to see the students fresh out of their undergraduate experience, and prepare them for the large amount of information they will need to learn in subsequent years of the professional curriculum. However, how many educators in the professional curricula ensure the students that pass through the anatomy curriculum are prepared to succeed, and arrive on the first day with an adequate baseline of knowledge upon which to build during our course?

Many undergraduate curricula do not offer anatomy-intensive courses, especially dissection-based. Anatomy is often grouped in with physiology, and while students may learn the overall location of the stomach within a body, for example, more time in the course is dedicated to the physiology of digestion and absorption of nutrients by the stomach. Rarely do students have the opportunity to learn the neurovasculature supplying the stomach, and the anatomical relationships to other structures within the abdomen. While this lack of foundational anatomical knowledge is present in human medical students, it is especially true in veterinary medical students, as comparative anatomy courses are even less common in undergraduate curricula.

It is well known that students particularly struggle in anatomy coursework in professional curricula. There are many factors to this, including the large amount of material presented while students transition into life in professional school, which may be vastly different than their time as an undergraduate, as well as the exposure to a cadaver for the first time. Therefore, it would be ideal if students could gain exposure to the anatomical lexicon, cadaveric dissection, and get a glimpse into expectations of anatomy courses in a low-stakes environment.

Several institutions, both veterinary and human medical, have introduced the concept of “anatomy precourses” or “boot camps” to provide incoming professional students with the opportunity to gain such an experience. A model that was developed at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine1,2 allowed incoming professional veterinary students to participate in 10-15 hours (2-3 hours per day for 5 days) of an anatomy precourse, held a couple weeks before the start of the semester. This precourse covered only a small fraction of the material that was to be covered in the professional anatomy curriculum, but allowed the students to practice using anatomical directional terms; understand the expectations of the course, including material load; be exposed to cadaveric dissection and tool handling; and experience both a written, but more importantly, a practical examination. All of this occurred in a low-stakes setting, where performance in the precourse had no impact on their assessments to be taken in the professional curriculum starting only a couple weeks later, yet allowed students to see how they would perform on an anatomy exam.

This precourse not only significantly correlated with their performance in the professional anatomy curriculum1, but also improved their performance within professional anatomy coursework2. Therefore, these types of precourses may allow identification of students who would struggle in the professional curriculum before they even start, allowing educators to work with the student to modify their studying techniques appropriately even before the first exam. Anatomy precourses or similar academic boot camps can also provide students with an opportunity to build a solid foundation of anatomical knowledge and familiarity with the lexicon that will benefit them throughout the remainder of the professional anatomy curriculum.


  • McNulty MA, Lazarus MD. An anatomy precourse predicts student performance in a professional veterinary anatomy curriculum. J Vet Med Educ. 2018 Jan 18:1-13 doi: 10.3138/jvme.0317-039r
  • McNulty MA, Stevens-Sparks C, Taboada J, Daniel A, Lazarus MD. An anatomy precourse enhances student learning in veterinary anatomy. Anat Sci Educ. 2016 Jul8;9(4):344-56 doi: 10.1002/ase.1590
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Default Author Avatar IUSM Logo

Margaret A. McNulty

Dr. McNulty received her PhD from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, then pursued a research-intensive post-doctoral fellowship at Rush University Medical Center. She taught anatomy to professional veterinary students and maintai...