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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 9  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 135-140

Innovative Method of Teaching Embryology Using Three-Dimensional Playdough Model Construction: A Constructivist Teaching

Associate Professor, Department of Anatomy, S. Nijalingappa Medical College, Bagalkot, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission27-Jun-2020
Date of Decision17-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance18-Oct-2020
Date of Web Publication7-Dec-2020

Correspondence Address:
Manjula Patil
Department of Anatomy, S. Nijalingappa Medical College, Navanagar, Bagalkot - 587 102, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/NJCA.NJCA_67_20

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Background: Major hurdle in teaching and understanding embryology is the lack of three-dimensional (3D) orientation. Thus, understanding of the embryology is left to the imagination of students which is highly subjective and associated with very short recall memory. The objectives of the present study was to compare two advanced teaching tools (animated videos and 3D embryology model construction using playdough) to teach general embryology and secondarily to elucidate the usefulness of playdough for model construction. Methods: Forty 1st-year medical students were divided into two groups (V and P) of twenty students each. General embryology was taught to Group V (Video) using 3D animated videos, whereas Group P (playdough) constructed 3D models using playdough. A prevalidated questionnaire containing twenty MCQs was administered on 0 day, 15th day, and 30th day for both the groups. Focus group discussions were conducted to know about the educational tool used for teaching. The same process was repeated after 3 months by crossing over of groups. Results: We observed a reduction of test scores over 1 month in both the groups, but reduction was less in Group P (playdough), indicating good recall memory. When crossing over was done, test scores were better for both the groups indicating the reinforcement by two teaching tools. Many students felt model construction using playdough was enjoyable and could remember things for a longer time. Conclusions: Thus, model construction promotes active learning and provides 3D orientation of various dynamic developmental changes of embryology with good recall memory. Playdough can be an excellent material for model construction.

Keywords: Active learning, constructivist teaching, embryology, model construction, playdough, three-dimensional orientation

How to cite this article:
Patil M. Innovative Method of Teaching Embryology Using Three-Dimensional Playdough Model Construction: A Constructivist Teaching. Natl J Clin Anat 2020;9:135-40

How to cite this URL:
Patil M. Innovative Method of Teaching Embryology Using Three-Dimensional Playdough Model Construction: A Constructivist Teaching. Natl J Clin Anat [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 24];9:135-40. Available from: http://www.njca.info/text.asp?2020/9/4/135/302572

  Introduction Top

Preclinical disciplines are essential for all health and biological science courses.[1] Among them, anatomy is considered as the basic foundation of a medical course, which provides factual knowledge base that must be learned in its entirety.[2] In anatomy, embryology has its own place. The fundamental reason for studying embryology is to understand how our bodies came into being. A medical embryology course should provide understanding of mechanisms underlying both normal and abnormal development and basis for understanding the genesis of birth defects. In this era, increasing infertility rates, the newer techniques such as in vitro fertilization and embryo implantation, cryopreservation of embryos, stem cells, and cloning have become more important which demands physicians in all fields to be conversant with embryology.

Certainly, at most medical colleges, embryology is taught as lecture-based course, typically with no laboratory.[3] Embryology teaching differs from regular gross anatomy teaching in that it deals with microscopic structures, which require indirect observation and three-dimensional (3D) orientation as it involves dynamic changes.[4] Embryology lectures are taught using black board, overhead projector, and images on powerpoint presentation (PPT). All these modalities fail to provide 3D orientation to students, so most of the understanding of embryology is left to imagination of students, which is highly subjective and associated with very short recall memory. Learning by lecture is a passive experience, in which little processing occurs between the ears that hear and fingers that write.[5]

Recently, with swift technological advancement, many animated videos involving the dynamic changes of the embryo have become freely available online. These videos help the students to get the 3D orientation and an insight into the dynamic changes occurring at different stages of development.

Another mode of teaching embryology is using the artificially prepared models, which can provide to some extent 3D orientation and facilitate learning, since the students can see and touch the models and obtain knowledge by analogies. This approach is particularly important when embryo undergoes complicated transformations, but buying models for all stages is too expensive, and these models are vulnerable to repeated manipulation.[4]

To address the above mentioned issue, some instructors have introduced an alternative method that includes the hands-on construction of models by the students at key stages of the development of embryo.[6] This type of active learning brings about cognitive-constructivist learning. This is a dynamic process that leads to the construction of knowledge and involves visual and auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic sensations.[7]

As rightly said by Maria Montessori – what the hands do the mind remembers. All the Montessori schools teach kids by giving activity which involves model construction so that they remember the skills very well and the memory lasts for a longer time. There are various materials used for constructing models (clay, paper, playdough, etc.). However, playdough can be an excellent material owing to its simplicity of use, its pliability, and relative inexpensiveness and easy availability.[8] And also, models using playdough could be made very easily without much time consumption, could be molded in any direction, and is available in different colors. The models may not be long lasting, but they can be done faster, and also any errors in making of the models can be easily rectified within short time, and the dough can be reused number of times for the same purpose. Playdough was used previously to actively teach the tracts of spinal cord[9] and to teach complicated anatomy of cerebrovascular lesions such as cerebral aneurysm[8] and to teach gross anatomy.[10] Thus, playdough can be used to teach the dynamic changes involving the development of embryo at different phases.

Among the many teaching modes discussed above for embryology, teaching using 3D animated videos and construction of models using playdough were near to offering a better understanding of the embryology. With embryology having certain challenges of teaching, we decided to test these two teaching tools: (1) teaching using 3D animated videos and (2) teaching using playdough model construction.

Aims and objectives

  • Primary: To compare the outcome of two teaching tools used to teach embryology in terms of long-term memory
  • Secondary: To elucidate the usefulness of playdough in teaching embryology.

  Materials and Methods Top

Study type

This was a mixed method study (quantitative and qualitative).


Forty first-year medical students of 2018–2019 batch studying at S. N. Medical College, Bagalkot, were included in the study.

Sampling type

Simple random sampling was used.

Selection of study participants

The selection was done by instructing all the forty students (batch assigned for tutorials) to be seated in the classroom anywhere they wished, and each student was asked to say aloud a number from 1 to 40 in serial order. The odd numbers constituted the video group (V), and the even numbers constituted the playdough group (P). All confounders such as age and sex were addressed, and there was no statistical difference with respect to age and sex. An informed consent was taken to participate in the study.


All students attended the general embryology classes around eight classes right from fertilization (zygote formation), cleavage (morula and blastocyst formation), germ layer formation (gastrulation-germ disc formation, cavity formation, extra embryonic mesoderm formation, primitive streak, and intraembryonic mesoderm formation), notochord formation, neural tube formation, and folding of embryo as part of medical curriculum. The aids such as black board, PPT with pictures, and artificial models were used for teaching. After 1 month during routine general embryology revision tutorials of 3 h duration, we tested two teaching tools. For video group (V), revision class was taken by an instructor with relevant 3D animated videos, and for playdough group (P), revision was taken by hands-on construction of embryology model by students using playdough under the supervision of an instructor.

Ethical clearance

Approval was obtained from the ethical committee of the institution.

Method of collection of data

Video group (V)

Instructor took the embryology revision class using 3D animated videos (available online from authentic websites which were validated by departmental staff and Simbryo CD-ROM available with Langman medical embryology textbook, 9th edition) to demonstrate the microscopic and dynamic changes that are taking place during development. Students were then divided into four groups of five students each, and each group was asked to present the assigned stage of development. The total duration of 3 h was taken for this process – 60 min lecture using animated videos, 45 min for students to discuss, 45 min for the presentation of assigned topic, and 30 min for focused group discussions regarding how they felt about the teaching tool used.

Playdough group (P)

Instructor demonstrated the different stages of development of embryo using the construction of models. Then, students were divided into four groups of five students each, and they were asked to construct the models [Figure 1] and [Figure 2] in groups under the guidance of the instructor. Then, each group was asked to present the assigned stage of development. Materials required for hands-on activity (playdough in different colors, rolling pin, plastic ball to make molds, transparent spread sheet, and knife). The total duration of tutorials was 3 ½ h (as duration got extended by 30 min): 60 min for instructor to explain embryology by constructing the models, 90 min for students to construct the models (this group discussed stages of embryology during construction of models only), 30 min for the presentation of assigned stages by different groups using models prepared by them, and 30 min for focused group discussions regarding how they felt about the teaching tool used – questions on ease of use of playdough for model construction, repeated unmolding and molding of playdough while constructing models, and reusability of playdough were posed for the students to know the usefulness of playdough for model construction.
Figure 1: Students involved in the construction of the playdough embryology models (Group B)

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Figure 2: Different embryology models constructed by students using playdough

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After the discussion, both groups (V and P) were given posttest containing twenty MCQs which covered the complex and key developmental aspects of topics discussed, and these questions were both internally (departmental faculty) and externally (other university faculty) validated by group of experienced faculty who were engaged in teaching embryology for more than 20 years (0 day test). These test scores were labeled as V0 (video group) and P0 (playdough group). Then, the same test (covering the same concepts but questions were asked in a little modified way) was administered on 15th day (V15 and P15) and 30th day (V30 and P30) to both the groups for long-term memory test.

After 3 months (the normal time taken for memory to wash away is 1 month), the same process was repeated by with crossing over of two groups; video group now underwent revision of same general embryology topics using construction of models method (video to playdough [VP]), while playdough group underwent revision using video method (playdough to video [PV]).

Statistical analysis

Statistical analysis was done using? SPSS 16.0 software version (Statistical Package for Social Sciences, IBM, SPSS Statistics, USA). Paired t-test was used to compare the test scores within the groups and unpaired t-test was used to compare between the groups. ANNOVA was used to see for any significant change in the test groups between the groups and post hoc Dunnet’s test using the 0 day as reference to know the significance.

  Results Top

Quantitative data

There were total forty participants in our study (male 21 and female 19) with mean age of 18.5 ± 0.5? years

It is evident from [Table 1] that the mean posttest scores were better for playdough group (P0, P15, and P30) on all tested days when compared to video group (V0, V15, and V30). The scores were statistically significant (P = 0.001 on all days).
Table 1: The posttest scores of video and playdough group on 0, 15th, and 30th day

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It is evident from [Table 2] that the mean posttest scores were better for playdough group (VP0, VP15, and VP30) on all tested days when compared to video group (PV0, PV15, and PV30). The scores were statistically significant (P = 0.001 on all days).
Table 2: The posttest scores of cross over video and playdough groups on 0, 15th, and 30th day

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In [Table 3], video group (V), when taught using construction of playdough models (VP) scored better and scores were also statistically significant (P = 0.004 and 0.001 on 0 day and 30th day).
Table 3: The comparison of test scores when groups were exposed to two modalities teaching on 0 day, 15th, day and 30th day

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And also, when video group (V) only exposed to video, the mean test scores were 13.05 ± 2.544 (V0), 11.50 ± 2.373 (V15), and 7.80 ± 2.526 (V30), whereas the test scores were more for this group when crossing over done 16.95 ± 1.234 (VP0), 16.15 ± 1.137 (VP15), and 14.90 ± 1.804 (VP30).

It is evident from [Table 4] that the mean scores for all the groups reduced from day 0 to 30th day. However, the mean scores of playdough group (P) were more compared to video group (V). When crossover of the group was done, the crossed over groups (VP and PV) performed better than the baseline groups.
Table 4: ANOVA to compare the test scores within the groups and between the groups

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In [Table 5], it is clear that the reduction in mean scores of video group (V) was Highly significant (****P < 0.001), while the reduction in the mean scores of playdough group (P) was not significant (P = 0.993).
Table 5: Post hoc Dunnet's test done keeping 0 day scores as reference

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Qualitative data

We conducted focused group discussion immediately after the tutorial to ask about the teaching tool they underwent.

Playdough group

Majority of the students felt that this technique of constructing their own models made them understand the dynamic changes occurring in the embryo.

Few quotes from students:

“We enjoyed the tutorial very much. We understood the concept clearly now”

“Please teach the whole embryology like this only”

“Something different from routine”

“At last got the orientation about foldings of embryo”

Video group

Majority felt that, watching videos gave them the understanding of dynamic changes of embryo.

Few quotes:

“Got the orientation of primitive streak”

“We can now imagine the dynamic stages of embryo with more clarity”

“Difficult to maintain attention for a long time”

When crossing over was done

When crossing over was done, and both groups were exposed to two teaching tools, students felt that constructing models with their own hands made them understand the dynamic changes in embryo very well and helped them to remember the concepts for a longer time.

Few quotes:

“Enjoyed constructing models”

“We can maintain the attention throughout the process as we are directly involved in it”

“Can remember concepts for a longer time”

“Play dough can be reused again and again at our hostel or home to clear the concepts when needed”

“Play dough is an excellent material as models can be destroyed and made again without wasting it”

  Discussion Top

Developmental anatomy is a powerful adjunct to an in-depth understanding of gross anatomical pattern and scientific basis for understanding mechanisms underlying both normal and abnormal development,[4] and it holds an important place in the anatomy curriculum. An important function of embryology is to provide a logical basis for understanding the overall organization of the human body.[3] As embryo undergoes a lot of dynamic changes during development, to make students imagine how these changes are taking place is a big challenge on the part of teachers.[4]

We tested two teaching modalities (teaching by animated videos and teaching by hands-on construction of playdough models) for teaching general embryology to the 1st-year medical students. In our study [Table 1], the mean score of students of video group (V) was less compared to students who involved in the construction of models using playdough (P) and scores were statistically significant on 0, 15th, and 30th day (P = 0.001). And also as the days pass, the scores started reducing more for the video group (V) than the playdough group (P), indicating that teaching by animated videos has less role in creating long-term memory. This possibly may have resulted due to the reason that students loose attention when they are passively watching videos for a long time. Furthermore, students who viewed the video might not have learned what the teachers intended them to learn, because the video did not appeal on the same willingness or readiness to learn as the actual clay-modeling experience.[11] Furthermore?, the lack of stereopsis and the opportunity to view the model from different angles at their own free will is lacking in video viewers.[12]

Allowing students to construct their own models during the class adds to constructivist learning. It is a dynamic process that leads to the construction of knowledge, using visual, auditory, and tactile sensations which require a lot of circuits, neuronal connections, and reception channels for knowledge to be stored as long-term memory.[4] Woods and Newell[13] stated that “vision and haptics work together to create a rich, cross-modal representation of objects which might lead to better retention of the objects.” To become knowledge, the information processed by the sensory systems must be stored as long-term memory, so it can be later retrieved.[4] In our study [Table 1], playdough group (P) performed better than video group at all test levels, and also the test scores reduced less as the days passed, indicating that this method helps them to retain the memory for a longer time.

When crossing over of the groups done, the test scores of both groups were better compared to exposing for only one teaching method (video or playdough). This may be due to the reinforcement using multiple teaching tools. Combined passive and active learning methods have an advantage over only passive teaching methods.[14] It has become increasingly apparent that no single method for teaching anatomy is able to provide supremacy over another.

Playdough is the best material one can use for this modeling purposes because its widely available, low cost, and much easier to mold, and moreover one can reuse it after making the models. Eftekhar et al.[8] used playdough for teaching the cerebral vascular lesions using playdough. They opined that playdough is more efficient and realistic in training the less experienced resident owing to low cost, easy availability, and simplicity of use. Herur et al.[9] used playdough for teaching tracts of spinal cord to 1st-year students, and author opines same benefits of playdough as others. Preece et al.[15] Khot et al.[16] opined that students learn more from hands-on experiences with model construction than from screen-based learning environments.


We cannot replace traditional method of teaching embryology with playdough model construction for the entire course due to time and resource constraints. Model construction teaching method can be employed at regular intervals in curriculum whenever key developmental stages involve dynamic changes such as general embryology.


As this is a newer mode of teaching, it needs further studies to come to conclusions about its effectiveness and inclusion in the regular medical teaching.

  Conclusions Top

Embryology is an important part of medical curriculum which needs to be learned to understand the basic mechanism underlying the normal and abnormal development of embryo. As development of embryo involves a lot of dynamic changes, traditional lecture-based teaching alone will not help students to get 3D orientation of dynamic changes occurring, and hence knowledge gained will not be registered as long-term memory. Subject like embryology demands blended teaching involving different modes of teaching apart from regular lecture-based teaching for better understanding and retention of knowledge. Therefore, a blend of lectures and models constructing activities at key stages of embryology, especially for general embryology can be a very good method to help the students to develop knowledge and skills that help them to achieve better understanding and problem-solving abilities. Playdough can be a time-honored educational tool which can be effectively used to teach embryology model construction and even gross anatomy. These sorts of activities break the monotony of teaching and learning and make learning really fun and enjoyable.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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Halasz NA. We create and can remove the roadblocks to good basic science education. Acad Med 1999;74:6-7.  Back to cited text no. 5
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Eftekhar B, Ghodsi M, Ketabchi E, Ghazvini AR. Play dough as an educational tool for visualization of complicated cerebral aneurysm anatomy. BMC Med Educ 2005;5:15.  Back to cited text no. 8
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Woods AT, Newell FN. Visual, haptic and cross-modal recognition of objects and scenes. J Physiol Paris 2004;98:147-59.  Back to cited text no. 13
Richardson D, Birge B. Teaching physiology by combined passive (pedagogical) and active (andragogical) methods. Am J Physiol 1995;268:S66-74.  Back to cited text no. 14
Preece D, Williams SB, Lam R, Weller R. “Let’s get physical”: Advantages of a physical model over 3D computer models and textbooks in learning imaging anatomy. Anat Sci Educ 2013;6:216-24.  Back to cited text no. 15
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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]

  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4], [Table 5]


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