by Britney Kitamata-Wong, Integrative Biology (Home Department: Optometry)

Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2015

Related Teaching Effectiveness Award essay: A Clinical Approach to Human Anatomy

My first semester teaching human anatomy was an eye-opening experience into the way students learn. I defaulted to teaching with conventional methods including lectures, hands-on demonstrations, and review sessions. At the end of the semester, one student summed up a major problem with my approach in a course reflection essay: “[T]he course was just as I expected, dull memorizing and mostly unpractical knowledge. I see no point in memorizing names arbitrarily made up by random people.” When I was appointed to teach this class a second time, I modified the course to appeal to the students’ interest in the medical field by structuring each lecture topic around a case study. Heightened student interest was evident by the increase in participation during lectures and inquiries after class about various medical conditions. Months after the class ended, a former student shared with me her experience shadowing at an ophthalmology clinic and how she could relate concepts learned in class to her patient encounters.

As I began to research effective teaching strategies, I gained insight into why my initial approach was ineffective. Several key words stood out to me from my student’s critique: memorizing, arbitrary, unpractical. All point to the inability to link newly acquired information in a way that is meaningful and accessible. I observed struggling students using repetition and other passive learning strategies to memorize a large number of anatomical terms. After speaking with these students, I realized that even when the knowledge necessary to answer a question was present it can be difficult to access in testing situations.

Although I did not know it at the time, my second approach integrated teaching methods that enhanced long-term memory and recall ability. In order to store new information, a stimulus can be encoded as a new mental process or as an enhancement to previously stored knowledge. Elaborative encoding is a way storing new thoughts as enhancements to pre-existing cognitive pathways, leading to better long-term retention (Najjar 1996, Shimamura 2011). While many students may not have prior clinical experience or knowledge of the topic discussed, providing students with a patient case at the start of each lecture served as existing knowledge that could be linked to subsequent concepts. Throughout the lecture, students were prompted to think back to the initial case presentation to continuously reinforce these pathways. Teaching through elaborative encoding will hopefully help students retain the information past the course to use in their future health careers.

While enhancing long-term memory is essential for success, students rarely succeed if they cannot recall their knowledge when it is needed. In my discussions with struggling students, the ability to voluntarily access stored information is often the defining factor between high performance and feeling like an exam did not accurately assess their knowledge. Shimamura (2011) discusses how prompting students to recapitulate the information they have just learned enhances rich recall through a concept known as the generation effect. Enhanced encoding enriches new knowledge by creating a large number of relevant interconnections to the stored stimulus and makes information easier to recall at will under a variety of conditions (Najjar 2996, Newman et al. 2007). Ending each of my lectures by asking students questions about what tissues are affected in the condition and what the treatment options are, based on their new knowledge of anatomy, encouraged student to generate their own accessible summaries of the information.

My teaching strategy can be further enhanced by incorporating other effective teaching strategies. Students learn best when they participate in collaborate engagement and explore their knowledge in a social context (Metz 2011). My students benefitted from the opportunities presented by elaborative and enhanced encoding by actively generating the connections between the case study and the physical structures they were learning. The benefits would reach more students if each individual were called to do so in small group discussions rather than solely through voluntary participation. This group collaboration could capture both social learning and the generation effect.

In my end-of term evaluations, students rated this course well above the department average in all categories. Several students provided additional comments about the course that were much different than those I received in my first semester: fun, interesting, unforgettable. However, my assessment of teaching effectiveness relied on voluntary feedback from students and evidence of participation and interest. An evaluation with questions tailored to case-based teaching will better evaluate its impact and areas for improvement. Observing students in small groups will also reveal how many students are motivated to engage in such activity.

The way we structure our teaching can trap students in conventional models of passive learning and make it difficult to retain information long-term. As educators it is our role to set the stage for successful encoding and make class anything but memorizing, arbitrary, and unpractical.


Metz, Kathleen E. 2011. “The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding and Engagement in Disciplinary Practices.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center Video, 18:23. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, April 19, 2011.

Najjar, Lawrence J. 1996. “The Effects of Multimedia and Elaborative Encoding on Learning.” Georgia Institute of Technology Technical Report.

Newman, Sharlene D., Timothy A. Keller, and Marcel Adam Just. 2007. “Volitional Control of Attention and Brain Activation in Dual Task Performance.” Human Brain Mapping (2): 109–17.

Shimamura, Arthur 2011. “Active Learning AND Testing: The Key to Long-Lasting Memories.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center Video, 26:04. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 8, 2011.