A Program of Medical Students as Teaching Assistants in an Anatomy Course: Effectiveness and Improvement

Rapid Communication

Austin J Anat. 2018; 5(2): 1081.

A Program of Medical Students as Teaching Assistants in an Anatomy Course: Effectiveness and Improvement

Kevin D He, William T Li BS and Zhang G*

Department of Pathology, Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, USA

*Corresponding author: Zhang G, Department of Pathology, Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, 1020 Locust Street, Room 263G Jefferson Alumni Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19107, USA

Received: April 16, 2018; Accepted: April 24, 2018; Published: May 01, 2018


Introduction: Enlisting medical students as Teaching Assistants (TAs) in an anatomy course is regarded as beneficial to both students and TAs. A TA program has been implemented at SKMC and was shown to enhance the development of core competencies of medical students. This study examines the effectiveness of TAs and identifies specific ways in which to improve their teaching.

Methods: A survey was sent to 146 Physician Assistant (PA) students taking anatomy at Thomas Jefferson University. Questions included positivelyand negatively-framed items related to anatomy dissection. Responses were graded on a 5-point Likert scale. A total of 62 responses were recorded.

Results: PA students indicated that TAs contributed positively to their learning (97% of respondents), and 64% believed that this experience motivated them to pursue a similar role in the future. On the other hand, 11% of PA respondents noted that TAs occasionally provided incorrect information, and 2% of respondents noted that TAs were often unavailable when needed.

Discussion: Use of medical students as TAs in the dissection laboratory is an effective method for supplementing PA education. Unmasking potential issues with medical student TAs requires the use of targeted questions, rather than limiting evaluations to general items. Our data suggest that TAs should prepare for teaching, admit gaps in knowledge, and focus on maintaining a professional attitude in the anatomy dissection laboratory.

Keywords: Teaching assistant; Anatomy; Medical education; Physician assistant; Interprofessional education


Modern medical education emphasizes non-technical competency. Programs in early medical education that enhance interprofessional communication and teamwork introduce students to their future team members in the current landscape of healthcare. While skills-based interprofessional programs have been encouraged, few have implemented similar measures for interprofessional teaching [1-3]. Recommendations exist for development of such interprofessional programs in the pre-clinical setting and acquisition of shared competencies to facilitate patient care [4]. Research has indicated a positive impact of early teaching experiences on the development of core teaching competencies, [5] but data on medical student teaching in an interprofessional setting are limited. Only one other institution has reported using medical students to teach physician assistant students in a first year anatomy course [3,6]. These studies, however, do not address areas in which teaching assistants can improve across a variety of modalities, such as coordination of shared dissection time, baseline knowledge of anatomy with admission of the lack there of, and attentiveness to the specific needs of the student teams. Although reviews have described positive benefits to student teachers in areas of academic learning and professionalism [7,8] the student learners’ perspective is often left unaddressed. In determining areas wanting for improvement, it follows that student feedback and student perception of teaching assistants may be the most constructive input.

The medical student Teaching Assistant (TA) program was established in 2014 at Sidney Kimmel Medical College and has been shown to contribute to core competency development in medical students [9]. Here, we aim to continue analysis of this program with further insight on the impact teaching assistants have on Physician Assistant (PA) students. Attempts to unmask previously undiscovered and unaddressed areas for improvement with specific questionnaire items may allow for a more targeted approach to improving the experiences of both parties.


Description of the TA program

The Department of Pathology, Anatomy & Cell Biology at Thomas Jefferson University established a medical student as teaching assistant program in 2014. Eight to ten rising second year medical students are recruited each summer and are given the opportunity to support department faculty in the dissection lab during an eight-week human gross anatomy course for first year physician assistant students at the beginning of their didactic period. Prior to the beginning of the dissection course, the course director administrates a half-day training session for the recruited medical student TAs. The training session emphasizes the importance of preparation for teaching, professional interactions with PA students, and teamwork among the TAs. The PA anatomy course consists of 42 hours of lecture accompanied by 92 hours of cadaver dissection. PA students are separated into dissection groups ranging from 5-6 students per cadaver and are instructed to reference Grant’s Dissector modules. Faculty instructors are present in the lab to assist with dissection and answer questions. TAs is instructed to perform a similar role. Responsibilities of the TAs include provision of guidance during dissection, identification of structures, and clarification of questions. TAs additionally compiles study materials for students prior to their exams. TAs organizes three timed practice practical examinations simulating testing conditions prior to each of three block examinations.

Survey administered to PA students

A total of 146 PA students from the Jefferson College of Health Professions and Arcadia University attended cadaver dissection during human gross anatomy in 2017. A survey “Post-Course Survey 2017” was provided to all students upon completion of the course. Survey questions included positively- and negatively-framed items specific to anatomy dissection. Questions gauged student appraisal of TA effectiveness and professionalism in different aspects of dissection lab, and specific items targeted potential issues that the students may have had with their TAs with respect to accuracy, professionalism, availability, and dissection. A total of 62 out of 146 students completed the survey. An additional short survey form was administered to and completed by all 98 Arcadia University students. Items evaluated student perception of TA performance. Students were given the option to provide constructive feedback about the TAs.

Responses were collected anonymously, graded on a five-point Likert Scale (“Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Neutral,” “Agree,” “Strongly Agree”), and converted to a numerical scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Neutral, 4 = Agree, 5 = Strongly Agree). “N/A” was an accepted response. For item 20 out of 32, students were instructed to select “Disagree” to control for inattentive participant responses. Means and standard deviations were calculated using Microsoft Office Excel 2017. Graphical representations are shown.


Teaching assistants positively impacted the educational experience of PA students.

PA students reported that TAs made a positive contribution to their learning experience, with 97% agreeing or strongly agreeing with this statement. The average numerical score was 4.7 (Figure 1). In addition, 98% of students stated that TAs maintained an appropriate level of professionalism during dissection, and 97% agreed or strongly agreed that students in future years would benefit from continued use of TAs (average numerical score = 4.8). Students also reported that TAs were helpful in lab (average numerical score = 4.7). Students commented throughout the course that they were appreciative of the resources provided by TAs, including study guides and practice laboratory practical examinations.