Classroom Resources

The debate on whether to use dissection or computer simulations for biology labs is ongoing. While many documented studies indicate that student achievement or understanding physiology concepts does not require dissection, a teacher’s right to choose the method of instruction is important. One way to deal with these issues is to adopt an “opt-in only” dissection policy.

Such a policy allows dissection labs to be offered as an extra learning activity that students can opt to participate in. There is no “extra credit” given, however it provides motivated and interested students the opportunity to perform a dissection if they are interested and willing to take part. 

Benefits of implementing an Opt-In Dissection Policy:

  1. Only students who are motivated and interested will sign up for the dissection lab, making it likely that students will approach the lab in an academic manner. This helps to eliminate reluctant, non-engaged lab partners or those that may engage in a macabre-type activity.
  2. Opt-In will likely increase the teacher to student ratio. With a smaller and more dedicated group of students, the teacher is more able to direct a quality lab, so that dissections are performed properly and student learning is maximized.
  3. The smaller number of students makes it easier to provide proper safety instructions, protective gear and parental consent forms with hazards and safety precautions outlined.
  4. This policy respects student’s rights and cultural traditions – for example, students whose religion forbids them from touching certain meats.
  5. As opposed to a total ban on dissection, a teacher’s right to offer a dissection lab is still respected.
  6. Technology based alternatives and models give students an opportunity to explore alternatives that teach physiology and animal systems and are used in post-secondary institutes.
  7. Smaller numbers of students participating in dissection labs helps lessen the impact on wild species, especially those known to be over-exploited and/or in decline (e.g., leopard frogs, bullfrogs, spiny dogfish sharks), thus avoiding conflict with environmental protection lessons and ethics.
  8. Elimination of required dissection is more in line with society’s view of animal ethics in science. Canadian universities ascribe to Canadian Council on Animal Care standards which requires the use of alternatives instead of animals wherever possible.
  9. Alternatives to dissection are now readily available and are less expensive in the long term than dissection specimens. Many alternatives are available online with a onetime cost or are free.
  10. The use of alternatives to dissection has been accompanied by studies to assess their effectiveness as learning tools. Dozens of these studies, summarized in The Use of Animals in Higher Education, demonstrate that alternatives result in equivalent or better performance than hands-on dissection.
  11. Required labs should present opportunities for student to learn and apply knowledge. Too often, dissection involves only observation and memorization. Only infrequently are students challenged with forming hypotheses or collecting and interpreting data in a dissection lab. It can be argued that dissection labs are not compelling enough in today’s educational landscape to be required of all biology students.
  12. Dissection labs may limit students by potentially discouraging a career in biology. For some adults, their most vivid recollection of high school science education is a negative one, remembered mostly for its repugnant smells and associations, not for what was learned there. An opt-in only dissection lab eliminates these negative associations and the needless screening out of highly compassionate students.

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