A close-up on neuroanatomy
The shift: Videos make brain science less scary for students
There is a documented phenomenon among medical students known as neurophobia—the fear of neurosciences. To make neuroscience less intimidating, Dr. Claudia Krebs created videos and modules to help her FMED 426 students understand key concepts about the brain. This redesigned course encourages students to engage with the material and apply their knowledge practically for a more comprehensive understanding of brain science.
Krebs needed a new way of teaching neuroanatomy. From past experience, she saw that students were not absorbing classroom materials. Traditionally, Krebs began her neuroanatomy labs with a brief lecture; students would then independently look at specimens and work through the didactic lab manual.
The method wasn’t effective. “The brain is quite complex, and it’s really overwhelming for students,” Krebs says. “They’d sit there and be completely shell-shocked at the sheer volume [of information].”
Krebs looked for ways that her students could learn—and absorb—all the course materials. “I wanted to develop something that would make the brain approachable, understandable, and manageable,” she says.
She conceived a series of short, 15-minute videos focusing on key concepts of neuroanatomy. Modules would supplement the videos to allow students to explore topics further, and together the videos and modules provided a conceptual framework for students to comprehensively understand and apply their knowledge.
With the help of flexible learning funding and the expertise of the MedIT Educational Technology team, Krebs set out to create the videos.
Producing videos was new territory. Krebs and her team, which included a professional film crew led by MedIT’s video and digital media producer Zachary Rothman, filmed the videos over the course of five days, filming 12 hours a day.
The team took care to ensure the videos were as engaging as possible. In the central nervous system video, for example, Krebs carefully dissects a brain as graphics and animations appear, illuminating different parts of the brain. In another video discussing the basal ganglia, dancers fluidly move across UBC’s Life Sciences Centre to depict motor coordination. Krebs then illustrates on an artistically rendered chalkboard drawing the interactions between different brain areas.
The nine videos that were created cover topics such as the central nervous system, spinal cord, visual system, and cerebellum. “I could have never done this alone,” says Krebs, crediting her team for helping bring her vision to reality.
The teaching strategies
To make neuroanatomy more accessible and fun to learn, Krebs implemented several new teaching strategies.
In addition to the nine videos, Krebs and her team also created 20 interactive modules, which helped students reinforce their learning. The videos and modules covered fundamental concepts, and students could review the materials at their own pace.
Students were assigned the videos and modules before coming to class. During class time, rather than learning from the lab manual, the classroom shifted to a more collaborative atmosphere. Students were asked to complete a short quiz based on the week’s materials before breaking into group work.
Emphasis on application
By blending and flipping her classroom, Krebs was able to shift class time from learning about concepts to applying them. With the help of instructors and teaching assistants, students would apply their knowledge to solve clinical cases.
“They’re coming to the teaching session already having seen [the videos] and conceptually processed all of that,” Krebs says. “They can apply it to completely different things and it solidifies the basic science and, at the same time, primes them and gets them ready for clinical experiences. I really want them to understand how the brain works in a very basic way, so they can start understanding symptoms in patients.”
Krebs admits it took a lot of work to redesign her course, and it was difficult for both her and her students to adapt to this way of learning.
“I had to rewrite the entire lab manual,” she says, stating that it was too focused on knowledge acquisition. “The lab manual has now been rewritten for knowledge application.”
Krebs knew her students would have comments, so two weeks into the course, she encouraged their feedback and made sure to adapt her course accordingly. Her students were pleased their feedback was heard and considered, and it allowed them to take ownership of their own learning. Together with her students, Krebs was able to create a course that worked for all.
At the end of the first offering of her course, Krebs received highly positive feedback from her students.
“I think from a pedagogical point of view, it really makes the brain more approachable to them. It’s no longer this elusive organ in the skull that does all these things but is way too complicated to understand. I think with the videos and the modular approach, it becomes more understandable,” Krebs says. “[There were] a lot of very encouraging comments about how much they enjoyed this experience.”
There has also been tangible proof that her students are slowly overcoming their neurophobia. In the past, students expressed little interest in pursuing careers in neurology or psychiatry. A new survey of students in Krebs’s course saw 30 percent of students now considering a career in the neurosciences.
Outside of UBC, Krebs’s videos are also proving popular. The first video received more than 9,000 hits within the first two weeks it was posted. Krebs has also received requests from other instructors to use her videos in their courses, to which she happily agrees.
“One of the big things that I really wanted in this project was to have it as an open access resource, so that anybody can use it,” Krebs says. All videos and modules are publicly available on her website, www.neuroanatomy.ca.
Krebs credits the experience with creating a key shift in how she approaches her course. “My focus has shifted from me teaching to them learning,” Krebs states.
She points out that often, professors spend a lot of time creating the perfect lectures and thinking about how they can present the materials—yet students remain passive. By redesigning her course, Krebs has discovered how to best engage with students.
“Now in class, I have time to interact with the students and really listen to their questions and teach them on a more one-on-one basis.”
Krebs has been teaching the course for many years, and she notes that now, “the students are more knowledgeable than they’ve ever been. They have a much better understanding, a much better vocabulary, and their critical thinking is much better. They’re able to apply, and they’re able to ask really high level questions.”
Krebs sees many future opportunities for transforming her teaching and her other courses. She will continue to use her videos and modules in her courses, and she is looking to create another series of videos for head and neck anatomy—another complicated topic for students to understand.
Having seen the resources available on campus, she is excited for future collaborations and projects. “One of the big things this project has taught me is how much is available at UBC, and once you tap into it, you can do really amazing things.”
Dr. Claudia Krebs is a senior instructor in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. She has worked on the development of several projects, including creating 3D animations to teach gross anatomy and a pilot study to integrate anatomy with imaging.