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Thinking of learning 3D anatomy? Think again

Learning anatomy goes beyond playing with a 3D model. Find out why.
Liver (bare area - ventral view)

When we tell people about Kenhub, we're very frequently asked whether it supports 3D models of the human body. The expectation is that a modern platform for teaching (and learning) anatomy online would naturally support advanced visualization techniques. It's seldom that people ask us about the didactic concept behind Kenhub, or how it helps people memorize and store information for a longer period of time and more effectively. The question is, therefore "are we losing anything by not providing 3D models?".

We believe, and there's some research to support, quite the contrary. 3D visualization can hinder on effective learning more than it can assist in the process in some cases: "...our conclusion is that the potential for dynamic display of multiple orientations provided computer-based anatomy software may offer a minimal advantage to some learners and, based on previous research, may disadvantage learners with poorer spatial ability." (source). Even if it did actually improve the learning experience, we believe that, alone, 3D visualization is not sufficient to effectively learn anatomy.

  1. Visualization is not everything
  2. Information overload
  3. Too many options
  4. Our approach
  5. Conclusion
  6. Highlights
  7. Sources
+ Show all

Visualization is not everything

It's true that being able to visualize a complex or unfamiliar anatomy structure is very important. After all, we live in a 3-dimensional world and our bodies are not flat. Being able to simulate visually the real human body can have its benefits. However, visualization is not the only challenge in learning a subject. In fact, from our own experience and feedback from our users, visualization alone can be overwhelming.

Iliacus muscle (ventral view)

The amount of information a typical student needs to digest is huge. For each anatomy structure, students typically have to memorize at the very least the name (some times both in Latin and English, and perhaps in their own native language).

Information overload

Additionally, many anatomy structures have a function, or relate to other structures. Muscles have one or more origin and insertion points and each of those has a standard term. When this information is presented, whether in 3D or 2D form, it is usually accompanied by other information that is essential for the learning purpose.

Latissimus dorsi muscle (dorsal view)

Typical anatomy atlases and many computer-based 3D atlases will present a lot of information at once. It's not uncommon to see visualizations with two or three dozens of anatomy terms. This is what we consider "information overload" and we try to avoid it at all costs.

Research into Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) seems to strongly support this view. Specifically, one study conducted several experiments, one of which focusing on the flow of blood around the heart, lungs and body. By separating textual information from diagrams, the study showed better results than with the integrated information: "...the simple removal of a redundant source of information can reduce instruction time and enhance learning". Other experiments on the same paper, focusing on different areas of learning, reached similar conclusions. "The frequently made assumption, sometimes explicit but more frequently implicit, that redundant technical information is at least neutral and perhaps beneficial in its effects on learning needs to be called into question"

Anterior limb of the internal capsule (axial view)

Too many options

Freedom and the ability to control your pace, orientation and subject assimilation may intuitively seem like a positive thing to enhance the learning experience. Having the ability to rotate, zoom and focus on different anatomy structures from different angles could be considered an advantage.

However, research seems to suggest the contrary: "These Findings can be viewed as disquieting. It is presumably a goal of all educational innovations to enhance learning, yet we have shown that the addition of dynamic simulation has a negative impact of learning on those who arguably need it most: students with relatively poor spatial ability".

Longissimus muscle (axial view)

What many 3D anatomy learning platforms often lack is structure. Learning and memorizing, in particular, can benefit from sequential, structured approach, which might seem to limit the learner. But in our opinion, those limits enhance learning since they increase focus and reduce information overload. "It would seem self-evident that learners would derive considerable benefit from the potential of the computer to present visualizations of the structures in multiple orientations. However, these studies have shown that under some circumstances the presentation of complex multimedia instruction under learner control may do more harm than good" the paper concluded.

If not with 3D tools, how should you be learning anatomy? Our Human Anatomy Study Guide is a great place to start. 

Our approach

We are not trying to say that our approach to learning anatomy is proven to be superior in all cases. There are merits in using 3D visualizations to get a better understanding of complex structures. However, one should be careful when considering those forms of visualization as the primary source of information. Furthermore, reducing cognitive load and providing focus can greatly enhance the learning experience on many subjects, anatomy being one of them.

Kenhub Quizzes

Our focus is on a number of core aspects:

  • Memorization - a core aspect of learning anatomy is being able to recall the term for each given structure. Those learning goals are best achieved when distraction is minimized and the elements avoid creating overload. Each of our exercises is focused on one or two structures and not more. Combination of different cognitive elements (voice, visual and textual) can help improve memorization. Repetition and re-structuring of exercises help create a focused, but interesting experience.
  • Didactic concepts - presenting the information is not enough. The core benefit of our platform is to use didactic elements during the learning process. We reduce "freedom" in order to achieve high level of information retention and reduce cognitive load.
  • Personalization - each student is different and their levels and needs might be different. Therefore, the learning experience should target each student individually.
  • Fun - we try to incorporate game elements into the platform, to make the learning experience more engaging. Again, it's not all about the information. Motivation plays an important role in successful learning.


We tried to briefly cover some of the aspects of anatomy learning and relate to some research available on this field. We come from a very practical background and don't claim to have produced scientific evidence that our platform is necessarily superior. We acknowledge that learning is an integrated experience and blended learning might be best method to achieve your goals. Nevertheless, we want our students to get a sense of how broad the anatomy education field is, as we are learning about it as we go along.

© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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