Teaching Stories

Tamara Maciel: The Anatomy of Learning

Tamara Maciel
Tamara Maciel, School of Anatomy

Written by Arifeen Chowdhury, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

Tamara Maciel is an expert in a very corporeal discipline – human anatomy – yet she still manages to infuse a great deal of soul into her work. Her interest in the human frame is reflected in her dual role at Waterloo: she is both an instructor and the Teaching Laboratory Coordinator in the School of Anatomy. Anatomy is essential to understanding the human body, and Maciel takes pride in helping her students build a foundation for future careers in health and medicine.  

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​Maciel is highly regarded by her students, in part because of the rapport she develops with them by virtue of genuinely caring about their personal and academic well-being. The majority of her students are in their first year and she recognizes that most of them have just left home and are adjusting to the new environment of a university. She explains, “I take into consideration the fact that my students have lives beyond the classroom, and make sure that if they are overwhelmed I can assist them in some possible way. Sometimes they just need reassurance or redirecting to resources that can help.” Her positive rapport with students has made it easier for her to convey high expectations: they trust her assessment of their abilities, and they know she wants them to succeed. To this end, Maciel seeks to eliminate or at least mitigate all barriers to learning that students might encounter. She and her students function as a team as they progress through the term — “My students know that I am not playing any games and that I am trying to set them up for success.” 

Anatomy is often considered a content-heavy discipline that requires a lot of rote memorization, but Maciel eschews that approach. Learning anatomy, she says, is like learning a new language, and while it does require practice and repetition, she aims to ease the burden of memorization by focusing on concepts, logical relationships, and experiential learning. In addition to making and uploading videos on essential anatomical topics, Maciel has her students engage in student-driven, hands-on learning: they examine human cadavers in Waterloo’s Human Anatomy Dissection Laboratory, and they reinforce their learning by sketching the components they observe. While anatomy apps for mobile devices can supplement this experiential learning, Maciel admits she is a bit old school: “There are no substitutes for the real thing,” she says.

Collaboration is also an essential part of Maciel’s teaching practice. She encourages students to share information and engage in discussions via social media such as Facebook groups. Maciel and her colleagues also provide leadership opportunities for students: after successfully completing an anatomy course, many students become Volunteer Teaching Assistants. Each of these students is assigned to a lab section for an entire term, where they mentor students who are new to the program. The experience also, of course, reinforces their own knowledge. With such resources and teaching strategies in place, Maciel says she tends not to worry about how many students are passing or failing — she believes they can all be successful if they diligently and consistently apply themselves.

Maciel recognizes that teaching is an evolving craft, and that how she teaches now might not be how she teaches in the future. “Students are always the same age,” she says, “but the instructors are not. We keep getting older and sometimes we don’t recognize that we have to adapt and change with the times.”

Remote video URL
Watch this video of Tamara Maciel describing the student learning experience in Waterloo's School of Anatomy. 

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Tip sheets

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: