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How to Study Human Anatomy


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I have studied and interviewed groups of medical and science students that have excelled in their course work.   It is true that there are specific and detailed guidelines that these students adhere to and credit for their academic success.   With some time and applying these study skills to your studies you can greatly improve your academic performance.   The following are study strategies and tips from past honor students of Human Anatomy.

Study Skill #1 - It is NOT enough to simply read, re-read, and re-type up the notes.   The goal in anatomy is to become a visual learner, so it is extremely important to keep pictures in front of you.   Let's say you are studying the forearm for example.   The best approach is three pronged.   That is, to have three pictures out side-by-side, one of the superficial structures, one of the deep muscles and bone matrix, and a third of cross-sections.   Now as you read each sentence of your text, the words will have graphic substance to support them.   This allows your brain to start building the 3-D structure of the human body.

Study Skill #2 - Knowing the relationships is key.   This means that if you are given a point anywhere in the human body, that you should be able to navigate your way to any other point by spatial relationships to landmark structures.   The best way to accomplish this is by describing the path of a body part in relation to its surroundings.   Let's take the Ulnar Nerve for example.   Beginning in the axilla, it courses as the most medial branch of the brachial plexus.   As it descends down the arm, it remains superficial to the triceps muscles, medial to the humerus, and maintains a tight medial position to the brachial artery.   It continues this until the distal region of the arm, where it courses on the posterior aspect of the humerus, and then it makes a tight cross over the elbow joint posterior to the medial epicondyle.   It continues between the heads of the flexor carpi ulnaris muscle and enters the anterior compartment of the forearm where it accompanies the ulnar artery.   This will enhance your understanding of human anatomy because it forces your brain to travel through the mental images and describe it in your own words.   This is a skill that will be necessary for nerve lesion questions.

Study Skill #3 - Make charts for the muscles.   List the muscles in the rows on the left and then make columns on the right for Origin, Insertion, Action, and Innervation.   Stare at pictures of the muscle under study and match the answers in the columns with the pictures.  

Study Skill #4 - Memorize the boundaries and contents of specific compartments of the human body.   For example, the Cubital Fossa is bounded: Laterally - medial border of brachioradialis, Medially - the lateral border of pronator teres, Floor - brachialis, Roof - skin and fascia, Contents - median nerve, brachial artery, tendon of biceps, radial nerve, & median cubital vein.   Once these have been memorized they serve as valuable landmarks to navigate your way around the body.

Study Skill #5 - Understand the terminology.   This is obvious, but if you do it from the very beginning of your human anatomy course it will save you a lot of time later on.   Anatomists often sound like they are speaking a different language and it overwhelms students at first.   But if you take the time, you will see that a name of a muscle or ligament will often tell of its origin, insertion, or action.  Flexor Digitorum Profundus for example, is the major muscle that flexes the fingers.   Therefore, you may already know what Flexor Digitorum Superficialis does, it's the same action, but this weaker muscle lies closer to the surface of the forearm.   In addition, arteries tend to be named for their destination.   The right coronary artery will supply blood to the right ventricle of the heart.   Knowing the terminology breaks down the information in digestable pieces and makes it easier for you to remember where things are positioned.

Study Skill #6 - Photocopy the pictures from your anatomy book and white out the labels.   In fact, make several copies of important diagrams without labels and use these to study and fill them in on your own.   It is often helpful to use these same pictures to trace the pathways of the nerves and arteries with colored pencils.   This will help to separate the structures in your mind and reinforce their routes.

Study Skill #7 - If you have access to a cadaver, give him/her a name, because the amount of time you spend with the cadaver is directly related to your grade.   Identify the same structure on multiple cadavers.   This exercise will prove that you can use different anatomical landmarks as a navigation system for the human body.   This is also important to understand and identify regions of variation in the body, such as arterial branches of the subclavian.   Keep in mind that arteries should be named based on where they are going, not where they branched from.

Jordan Castle is medical student and cognitive psychologist research assistant. His work spans many different aspects of the learning process and aims to help students excel in their individual courses. Detailed study strategies and practice exams can be found on his website at Courses include: Physiology, Genetics, Histology, Neuroanatomy, and Histology.


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