The Complicated Patient: An Authentic PBL for High School Anatomy


What’s more fun than an autopsy?

If you read my previous post (read it here )on the big review PBL I wrote for my Anatomy students (& will use to review A&P in Forensics as well), you know how much my students love Forensics. So, I decided to take that PBL idea and go a little deeper with it.  (Plus… Shhhh! I still have some time to fill before school gets out and I need another fun activity LOL!) Regardless of my motive motivation, I decided to take the Medical Examiner PBL idea to the next level and have my students collaborate in teams to interpret an autopsy report, decide what caused the death of Patient X, create a CER (Cause, Evidence, Reasoning) presentation and paper, and compete for an opportunity for a job in the Medical Examiner’s Office. Whew! Sounds fun doesn’t it? 🙂


The Basics of the Complicated Patient PBL

This PBL activity can be used as a standalone project or as an enrichment companion activity to the Assistant Medical Examiners Training Program PBL.  It is intended as a deeper review of the various body systems within a practical application.  Students will be exposed to medical vocabulary used in the context of an actual autopsy report.  Every effort was made to produce an autopsy report that mirrors what is produced from a real Medical Examiner’s office.  Some of the vocabulary might be unfamiliar, but will make an excellent “teachable moment” for things like word parts (ex. thromboemboli- “thrombo”= blood clot;  “emboli”- moving) or common medical conditions (ex. Atherosclerosis- hardening of the arteries). img_0389

Students always enjoy the opportunity to debate! This project provides students with the opportunity to analyze information, form an opinion, and defend their decision with direct evidence from their patient. I included several rubrics that I use for assessment as my students complete this project.  These include opportunities for students to evaluate themselves, their team, as well as tools for me as the teacher to evaluate their work as a team and the product they produce. Here are the rubrics included with the PBL.

img_0388I have also included my KEY to the Interpretation of Autopsy Findings Chart, although answers could certainly vary with your students’ the depth of analysis.  img_0383.jpgAs for the “answer” to Patient X’s death, arguments can be made for both sides for manner of death 1) Death by heart attack or stroke (natural causes), then he had the accident or 2) Death resulting from injuries caused by the accident (accidental). A case could also be made for 3) undetermined because it really is difficult to pinpoint an exact event that caused his death (Since he was on blood thinners, he experienced heavier than normal bleeding from all the injuries (especially the lacerated liver) and maybe he would have survived these injuries if he wasn’t taking this drug). It’s always exciting for me as a teacher to hear the analysis my students participate in during a project like this!

The final aspect of the PBL is a team presentation to the Medical Examiner making their “case” for the manner of death their team believes happened.  My students consistently amaze me with the understandings they develop when they have to figure out an issue!  I require both a Google slide presentation as well as a written paper (in Google docs) because I have Juniors and Seniors and they need all the experience conveying their ideas as they can possibly get!  Here are my rubrics for the CER (Cause, Evidence, Reasoning). img_0382

Grading for this project is flexible for the teacher.  I have included my rubric (I count this project 150 points) with the point values for each part, as well as various evaluations and reflections that help me really assess my students’ learning with this project. 


I tend to grade teams according to how well they make their case and defend it with evidence….. not whether they chose natural cause, accidental, or undetermined as the manner of death.

I have found that project-based activities that feel “real” tend to foster rich conversations among the team members and encourage student engagement. It’s so helpful for students see Anatomy & Physiology in an authentic context!  If you are interested in purchasing this activity, please visit my TpT store

If you’d like to purchase the Assistant Medical Examiner Training Program PBL, please visit my TpT store at

Save 20% when you purchase the BUNDLE of BOTH projects!  See it here

About Edgy Instruction

Science Teacher (Biology, AP Biology, and Forensic Science), Anatomy Professor, and former Instructional coach.
This entry was posted in activity, Anatomy & Physiology, Project Based Learning PBL, Strategies, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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