Students' perceptions of anatomy across the undergraduate problem-based learning medical curriculum: a phenomenographical study

Esther M. Bergman*, Anique B. H. de Bruin, Andreas Herrler, Inge W. H. Verheijen, Albert J. J. A. Scherpbier, Cees P. M. van der Vleuten

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: To get insight in how theoretical knowledge is transformed into clinical skills, important information may arise from mapping the development of anatomical knowledge during the undergraduate medical curriculum. If we want to gain a better understanding of teaching and learning in anatomy, it may be pertinent to move beyond the question of how and consider also the what, why and when of anatomy education. Methods: A purposive sample of 78 medical students from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th year of a PBL curriculum participated in 4 focus groups. Each group came together twice, and all meetings were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were analysed with template analysis using a phenomenographical approach. Results: Five major topics emerged and are described covering the students' perceptions on their anatomy education and anatomical knowledge: 1) motivation to study anatomy, 2) the relevance of anatomical knowledge, 3) assessment of anatomical knowledge, 4) students' (in) security about their anatomical knowledge and 5) the use of anatomical knowledge in clinical practice. Conclusions: Results indicated that a PBL approach in itself was not enough to ensure adequate learning of anatomy, and support the hypothesis that educational principles like time-on-task and repetition, have a stronger impact on students' perceived and actual anatomical knowledge than the educational approach underpinning a curriculum. For example, students state that repetitive studying of the subject increases retention of knowledge to a greater extent than stricter assessment, and teaching in context enhances motivation and transfer. Innovations in teaching and assessment, like spiral curriculum, teaching in context, teaching for transfer and assessment for learning (rewarding understanding and higher order cognitive skills), are required to improve anatomy education.
Original languageEnglish
Article number152
JournalBMC Medical Education
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2013


  • Anatomy
  • Basic sciences
  • Curriculum
  • Education
  • Knowledge
  • Learning
  • Problem based learning


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