Why study anatomy
The first step on the road to your medical career is understanding human anatomy: how the human body is made up and how all its different parts work together to make the body functional. Otherwise, you won't be able to recognize the causes of symptoms, assess probable damage to organs due to trauma, or do medical procedures like injections, blockades, and surgeries.
Good anatomical knowledge is the base of the pyramid of becoming a successful doctor. This article will discuss the reasons for learning anatomy in medical school and the most useful techniques and tools for mastering it.
How to study anatomy
Cadaver dissection is our main source of knowledge about the structural makeup of muscles, bones, organs, and other parts of the human body. It yields vast amounts of anatomical information that we as students then have to process and remember. To make this endeavor easier for you, we will explore some methods for learning anatomy quickly and effectively.
First of all, you should know that there are always two general ways to learn: passive learning and active learning. When you read a textbook or listen to a lecture, you learn passively. As a listener, your main responsibilities are understanding and remembering the information presented.
You may know from experience that passive learning has drawbacks. For instance, it is pretty common to take notes during a lecture on auto-pilot without really thinking about what the lecturer says. This method can leave you with large gaps in comprehension.
In active learning, various interactive methods and techniques encourage student's direct participation. These can be engaging discussions, pair-work, quizzing, and other activities that require involvement. In this scenario, you actively think about the available information and the task at hand.
Furthermore, implementing additional study tools like anatomy.app can boost your understanding of human anatomy. When paired with certain conventional studying techniques, anatomy.app can significantly steepen your learning curve.
How to study anatomy for medical school
Although passive learning is sufficient to get some grasp of anatomy for other fields, in medical school it is essential to include active learning to study anatomy properly. It's not enough to memorize the names of specific structures if you do not recognize the matching locations in the human body. That is why medical schools give their students opportunities to work with real human bodies.
Students often analyse real bones or bone casts. They explore the bones' structures and try to find corresponding locations for each bone on a human body. However, seeing realistic human anatomy gets trickier, when dealing with more complicated structures like muscles and organs.
Students can only observe these structures in 3D during the rare cases of cadaver dissections, which most often get substituted with two-dimensional drawings. These can cause problems with understanding complex structures in a 3D body.
This is where anatomy.app can help with the learning process – it visualizes bones, muscles, and organs in 3D with an option to freely rotate the object, zoom in at certain details, and out to observe the bigger structure.
Anatomy.app is already used by universities to teach students anatomy. Michigan University Dental school and Riga Stradins University have used the app with good learning results and great feedback.
But what should we do to remember all the structures, origins, insertions, etc? Here, a few learning techniques could be helpful!
Learning techniques for studying anatomy
Let's make the process of learning anatomy more effective. We're not using the word "quick" because there are no shortcuts to learning anything well, but efficiency is something we can improve.
Sometimes we spend hours studying and do not remember most of it afterward. To change this, here are a few useful active learning techniques.
1.“Hot-dog” pages for learning anatomy
This is a simple but effective technique. Start by taking a blank sheet of paper and fold it vertically in the middle. Then fold the right part of the page away from you so that only the front part of the left side remains visible. Use this field to write down the term you wish to remember. Use the right side of the page to write down the correct answer.
For example, suppose you wish to remember which extrinsic eye muscles are innervated by the oculomotor nerve. You write the term - oculomotor nerve - on the left side of the page. Then unfold the right side of the page and write down the answer - medial rectus, superior rectus, inferior rectus, and inferior oblique muscles.
Next, fold the page back in a way that you only see the term oculomotor nerve. Now, test yourself by asking which muscles are innervated by this nerve. Say it out loud, then unfold the answer. Repeat until you feel you know it!
Flashcards can also be an effective way of learning and remembering anatomy. The method is quite similar to the “hot-dog” pages, but here you use index cards. Write the structures and terms you wish to learn on one side of the card and the answer - on the other. Keep in mind, however, that flashcards and similar methods are only meant for remembering the “language” of anatomy, but leave you in the blank about their localization in a body. For that, you may need to use that anatomy.app!
3.Human anatomy mind map
Mind mapping is a go-to method for sorting and structuring what you've learned. Start by drawing a small circle in the middle of a blank page and label it with the name of the group of information you wish to remember (e.g.,. “leg muscles”). Then draw arrows outwards from the circle towards smaller circles (e.g.,. labeled “muscles of the hip region”, “thigh”, “leg”, and “foot”). From these circles, draw more arrows that point to the specific groups and their muscles.
If you go through your mind map multiple times, you will be able to visualize this information in your head and go from one circle to the next. This makes it easier to structure a large amount of information.
Another excellent example of active learning is quizzing. It demands the student to recall all the learned information and also explore whether they've understood and remembered everything correctly.
Coming up with the right questions is not that easy though. That is why anatomy.app is soon launching a quiz section, where students will be able to check their knowledge. You can also use a “study buddy” who could quiz you about the subjects you have learned!
5. Memory palace for anatomy learning (method of loci)
The "memory palace" or the "method of loci" can be used to remember all sorts of information, not just anatomy. The basis of this technique is imagining a familiar location – like your home, for example. Can you imagine it vividly?
Visualize yourself walking through this location – standing at the entrance door, opening the door, walking through the entrance, going to the living room, kitchen, bedrooms, etc. As you walk through these rooms, you place images of the things you want to remember along your way.
To do that successfully you have to transform terms into objects or creatures that you can place in the physical space of your home. Preferably these objects will be something that you can instantly associate with the term you're trying to remember. Associations created by one person won't always work for others.
To make associations easier to remember, you can make them gruesome or even sexual – turns out our brain tends to remember such things much better. It would help if you also included as much sensory information connected with these images as possible - smells, sounds, textures.
We've made a separate article on the method of loci with vivid examples of how to remember all the cranial nerves. Explore it here.
For how long should I study anatomy?
How long should one anatomy learning session be? Studying is not all about the volume – longer in no way equals better. Studies have shown that after about 25-30 minutes of rigorous learning the concentration capability decreases dramatically.
After this time window has passed, you might feel like you're putting in a lot of effort, but you won't get a medal for your pointless suffering. Your brain is fatigued by now and you're not taking in the information efficiently. The good news is that the very same studies have also shown that taking just a 5-minute break restores your brain capacity back to the baseline.
Keeping this in mind, try the "Pomodoro method." Learn without any distractions for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. When you've done this cycle four times, take a longer 20-30 minute break. This will significantly increase your productivity.
To keep yourself disciplined, use your phone timer or an app that will remind you to take your breaks. You have to be smart with your time and any learning should be viewed more as short interval sprints than a long marathon.
How often should I revise anatomy?
Even when you combine the use of anatomy.app with all the learning techniques we discussed, and even when you use the best studying practices, you have to revise the information you're trying to learn regularly for it to really sink in. Revisit your “memory palace,” flashcards, or mind maps often and the information will migrate from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
No magical fix will make you an expert overnight after just one session. You have to put in the work. To revisit what you've learned multiple times over longer periods, try spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition techniques are many and you should find the one that best suits you. But just for insight, the “SuperMemo” technique suggests that you repeat the material already on the same day when you first learn it, then on the 7th day, the 16th, and finally the 35th day. This works if you start studying early enough.
If there's a test coming up in a week – just study at one- to two-day intervals. Start on the first day and then continue on the next day or the day after. Don't skip the day before the test! For a short-term repetition, the more you do it – the better.
We hope you benefit from all our learning tips! To sum up:
- use sources that help you visualize anatomical structures in 3D, such as the anatomy.app. Michigan University Dental school and Riga Stradins university are already using this program to successfully teach their students;
- use active learning techniques to retain all the information you're encountering in your studies (for example the "memory palace" or flashcards);
- remember to take breaks between your study sessions;
- and revise what you've learned regularly.