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How to Study Human Physiology


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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 Physiology.

Study Skill #1 - Keep in mind the Big Picture. In fact, it can be summed up in one word . . . Homeostasis. Nearly every function of all the organs in the human body are trying to maintain or return to a healthy, low-stress state of existence. In the broadest of terms, this means that a stimulus sets off a trigger, that causes a response or action from a system. This is much like the way your thermostat is set at 70° F. When the temperature in the room drops below, say 68° , it stimulates the furnace. The action is that it pumps more heat into the room to bring the temperature back to 70°. In the body, there is also a system to counter the “furnace", and bring the temperature back towards 70° when it exceeds it. So the body's organ systems are engaging in a push-and-pull war that is constantly working to maintain the body's vitals at normal levels. Keep this example in mind, and most complicated relationships will fit into this elementary mold.

Study Skill #2 - Memorize a formula, but know the concept. The formulas merely portray a relationship - that is it. Students often get caught up on inserting numbers and magically arriving at the solution. However, many problems will express the answers in fractions or use arbitrary variables. In other words, the student must understand that if “x" goes up, then “y" goes down. Use numbers when your are studying to make sure you get the meaning, but the purpose is to realize that a formula means that many different factors are related to each other in specific ways.

Study Skill #3 - Know the systems purpose. This is most important in hypothetical scenarios, like a trauma event, a favorite for exam questions. Take the kidneys for example, they filter blood, form urine, maintain pH, and secrete hormones. However, their first priority is to maintain blood pressure; and in a hemorrhage state, this will trump all other functions.

Study Skill #4 - Use interactive graphs. The concepts of human physiology are dynamic, that is that they are functioning within a significant time component. Take the heart for example, you may know everything about the pressure-volume loop and the frank-starling law, but if you fail to incorporate time it will be difficult to comprehend the functioning system. Look at the electrical activity for example, the AV node slows down the contraction signal so that the ventricles have time to fill. Keep this in mind when the heart rate or its contraction strength is considered.

Study Skill #5 - Explain the concepts to somebody else. Ideally it would be to a classmate who can question your statements, but it even works with your 5 year old brother. The point is that the concepts of medical physiology often take the shape of circles. Students can understand individual legs of the system, but they have difficulty connecting the dots. By organizing all of your thoughts and translating them into a logical flow of speech, you will solidify your understanding of the human body.

Study Skill #6 - Practice. There are no short-cuts. Physiology is a difficult subject. Use our collection of practice exams and quizzes to test your understanding. These problems will give you hypothetical situations, like hypothermia or hemorrhage, and force you to think about a system's functions from various points. Remember the study strategies listed in this article and stay persistent.

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, Anatomy, Genetics, Histology, Neuroanatomy, and Histology.


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