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In this issue of CDTL Brief on Research and Classroom Practices, NUS colleagues discuss ways of student engagement across various disciplines in the University.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Using Short Stories as an Instructional Tool for Teaching
Human Anatomy in the Classroom
Dr George W Yip
Department of Anatomy

The study of human anatomy is fundamental to the learning of medicine. Indeed, Gray’s Anatomy, a classic anatomy textbook currently in its 40th edition (Standring, 2008), is held in the highest esteem in a doctor’s education and ranked as essential reading beside the Bible and the works of Shakespeare (Richardson, 2008). The anatomy student is required to examine all the tissues and organs in the body, understand the relationships among these structures and apply the knowledge to clinical practice. Given the complexity of the human body and limited curricular time, this means that students have to master a vast amount of information within the first year of medical school. To help students cope with their learning tasks, many anatomy educators stress on the importance of understanding basic principles, and advise students against relying solely on rote memorisation. Unfortunately, although most students are able to grasp these principles during classes, a significant number of them fail to retain, internalise or apply the knowledge in their studies. The use of short stories as an instructional tool in classroom teaching may help alleviate some of these problems.

Short stories have been used for thousands of years as a means of education, knowledge transfer and entertainment. Without doubt, many of us can readily recall The tortoise and the hare and other Aesop’s fables, which have brought joy to our childhood and helped shape our values. Writers such as Gladwell (2008), Levitt and Dubner (2005), and Brafman and Brafman (2008) made extensive use of short stories and case studies in their books to present and argue their hypotheses. Often, these stories are firmly lodged in our minds regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the authors’ ideas.

A well-crafted short story easily captures the audience’s attention. As the entire tale can be told within a few minutes, its message can be rapidly and effectively conveyed to the student before he gets distracted by the next message that appears on his mobile phone or other interruptions in class. Furthermore, stories facilitate contextual understanding of the encoded information, and provide a non-threatening means to encourage learning.

In formulating short stories for teaching anatomical principles and facts, it is important to bear in mind that the human element is crucial for bringing stories to life and making the lesson stick in the learner’s mind. As the subject matter is life itself, anatomy is in an advantageous position with regard to the use of stories for learning. Consciously or otherwise, anatomical principles are present in everything that we do—from the simple act of touching a blade of grass to more complex activities such as scoring the goal in a soccer game. To ensure its effectiveness, each story should have the main learning objective of a lesson as its central theme. Embedding multiple learning tasks into a single short story runs the risk of scattering the learner’s attention and confusing him with too much information. In picking scenarios for our stories, we should select those with which our students are familiar. Thus, while scenes from medical drama series such as Grey’s Anatomy or House might readily connect with our students, those from Chicago Hope or other television programmes in the distant past are likely to elicit only blank faces. In general, the presence of a puzzle that needs to be solved or an unexpected twist in the events being unfolded in the story tends to engage the learner much better than a straightforward narrative.

The ulnar paradox is a well known clinical scenario that can easily be incorporated into a short story for a lesson where the learning goal is to understand the innervation of muscles that control finger movements in the hand. The scene is easily set up by the lecturer simulating the claw deformity of the ring and little fingers, or by showing a photograph of a patient afflicted with this condition. In the ulnar paradox, a severe, proximal damage to the ulnar nerve leads to the paralysis of a larger number of muscles but a milder claw deformity compared with a more distal occurrence of nerve damage. This apparent paradox forms the unexpected twist or puzzle in the story, and the student is thereby challenged to apply his anatomical knowledge to come up with an appropriate explanation.

Short stories provide a good avenue for exposing students to clinical problems. This is particularly important to first year medical students as they have limited patient contact. In addition, they serve as an excellent introduction to problem-based learning sessions, which provide opportunities for in-depth dissection and analysis of more complex medical problems that possess multiple learning points straddling various disciplines.


Brafman, O. & Brafman, R. (2008). Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational behavior. New York: Doubleday.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Levitt, S.D. & Dubner, S.J. (2005). Freakonomics. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Richardson, R. (2008). The making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Standring, S. (2008). Gray’s Anatomy: The anatomical basis of clinical practice. 40th ed. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.


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Inside this issue
Action Research in Teaching
Major Challenges Instructors Face in Teaching Undergraduate Contemporary Life Sciences
Small Group Teaching—Get and Give 100% the ‘Old-fashioned’ Way: Perspectives from the Pathology Classroom
Two Strategies to Facilitate Active Learning in Large Classes
Using Short Stories as an Instructional Tool for Teaching Human Anatomy in the Classroom
Customising Continuous Assessment Exercises