A New Kind of Classroom: Enhancing Speech-Language Pathology Graduate Education With Cadaver Labs

Pictured: Graduate students at Appalachian State University in the Speech-Language Pathology master’s program who participated in a cadaver lab during the summer of 2023.

Students in speech-language pathology graduate programs welcome every opportunity to expand their knowledge beyond the classroom. Although the academic curriculum is critical to becoming a competent clinician, real-world experiences allow students to expand their critical thinking skills and solidify the application of theoretical knowledge learned from our professors in a clinically relevant way. One way to do that is to use cadaver labs.

Cadaver labs are educational settings that offer an immersive learning environment where students can deepen their understanding of human anatomy by working in a respectful way on the body of a deceased human being (a donor). Cadaver labs allow students to see, touch, and perform procedures such as dissection of human tissue.

In the communication sciences and disorders (CSD) discipline, cadaver labs are a “new kind of classroom,” helping to bring innovative learning experiences to speech-language pathology graduate students. Through learning hands-on in cadaver labs, students get to explore the complexities of the human vocal tract and see for themselves the structures involved in swallowing physiology.

A New Way of Learning

Many students frequently find anatomy and physiology courses to be a challenging experience. The copious number of anatomical structures. The abstract nature of the concepts involved. It can be inherently confusing and overwhelming!

Structures in the pharynx, larynx, and oral cavity— although relatively small in size—function as a complex system to allow for voice production and safe, efficient swallowing. Many other structures and body systems—such as the diaphragm, respiratory system, and cardiovascular system—are also critical for voice and swallowing.

Historically, professors have used textbook pictures, drawings, computer models, and physical models in the classroom to help students learn the location, orientation, and relationship of structures. Although this teaching technique may help students learn general concepts, these “out-of-context” depictions can make it difficult to fully comprehend the size, function, and orientation of these structures when applying that information to a clinical situation. In order to provide the best care for our patients, SLPs must have an in-depth understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the head and neck. However, it can be challenging to completely comprehend anatomy and physiology when you are not able to see it internally or in three dimensions.

Cadaver labs provide students the opportunity to fully comprehend different aspects of structures that are involved in voice and swallowing physiology. In my own experience in attending cadaver lab during my Voice & Resonance graduate class, almost all of my classmates had similar responses:

  • “Now I can actually understand what we learned in class!”
  • “I didn’t realize that’s how it actually worked.”

A New Set of Expectations

Participating in a cadaver lab can be exciting, but it can also be a daunting and emotional experience. Death is an unavoidable facet of human existence but facing that (sometimes for the first time) can be a scary experience. It can evoke a diverse range of emotions in students. Prior to beginning the lab, our professor gave us a few minutes to talk with each other about how we were feeling and if we had any concerns or questions. Our class held a moment of silence for each donor, reminding us that the donors made the thoughtful decision to contribute their bodies so we could have an optimized learning experience. Respecting the wishes of the donors means maximizing our learning experience by acquiring as much knowledge as we could. Creating this environment where we felt safe to share our thoughts and voice our opinions and thoughts, made for a calmer and less stressful experience.

A New Classroom Experience

Participating in a cadaver lab presents a unique opportunity that many students do not get. If you do have this chance, it is vital that you do everything you can to optimize your experience. Below are some tips that significantly enriched the learning experience for me and my classmates.

  1. Ask Questions. In a traditional class setting, some students may not feel that they need to ask questions because they will be able to review the notes later. However, during cadaver lab, active participation is crucial: Do not stay silent. If you are confused, need information repeated, or want to know more about a specific structure, speak up and voice what is on your mind.
  2. Touch. Tactile, sensory learning is often absent from classrooms. In a cadaver lab, sensory learning can be overwhelming. It can take time to become comfortable with what is in front of you. Always follow the rules that your professor/instructor gives you; however, if you have the opportunity and the freedom to touch something, embrace that opportunity. Take this time to look closer: This is your chance to explore the intricate layers to the human body.
  3. Have Anatomy Books on Hand. Identifying anatomical structures on donors can be difficult; the structures are not color-coded or outlined like we see in most anatomical drawings. Having anatomy books or pictures of specific structures nearby can aid you in accurately identifying and comprehending what is physically in front of you.
  4. Take Notes. Have a notebook handy. Lab classes can go fast, and there is a lot of substantial information being presented. Making a sketch of structures or jotting down keywords and other pertinent information can make it easier to reflect on the experience afterward.

Final Thoughts

If given the chance to participate in a cadaver lab, take it. It is a truly surreal experience! Participating in a cadaver lab allowed me to feel more confident about what I have learned in my “new classroom.” I also felt more comfortable being able to answer questions regarding anatomy and physiology—questions that my future patients will likely be asking me.

If your program does not already offer a cadaver lab experience, reach out to your professors and other faculty members. Discuss the possibility of collaborating with another program or college so that speech-language pathology students at your school can maximize their learning.

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