How to Learn (and Remember!) Anatomy as a Medical Student

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How can you possibly begin to learn (and actually remember!) the never-ending subject of anatomy? It’s the question on every medical students’ lips. Unfortunately, learning anatomy is a topic fraught with misunderstanding, where myths about the “ultimate learning method” are rife. In this article, we’re going to break down fact from fiction, and provide you with some tips on how to learn anatomy in the most effective way possible - and remember it, too!

It seems simple enough. You read the information, understand it, drill it into your brain, and prepare to pass your exam with flying colours. Right?

Yes and no. This approach may work in the short term, but in the long term, unfortunately it won’t suffice. In order to learn anatomy effectively and be able to remember it for months and years to come, you need to absorb the information at a deeper level. How can you do this? Holistic learning. Holistic learning is about relating different ideas together and treating information as an interconnected map. Therefore, unlike the commonly abused technique of rote memorization, holistic learning actually reflects how information is stored within our brains. Hint: it’s not in discrete boxes!

Photo by: Elnur

Photo by: Elnur

There are six main phases to holistic learning. Let’s begin with the acquire phase.

Phase one: Acquire

Acquiring information is the first step of holistic learning. Simply put, it involves transferring the anatomy knowledge from the page (or screen) to your brain. Simplicity, volume and speed are the name of the game here. Essentially, you want to absorb and simplify as much knowledge as possible in as little time as possible.

An excellent way to approach this is with flow-based note-taking, which involves using arrows and sketches to connect ideas in a way that makes sense to you as you read through large amounts of information. As you scan through the textbook or online resource you’re using to take notes, focus on only the most essential information, all the while quickly thinking about how you can relate it to the note you made before it. In doing so, you’ll begin the process of understanding and connecting ideas, getting you ready to enter phase two.

Photo by: T. L. Furrer

Photo by: T. L. Furrer

Phase two: Understand

Acquiring knowledge is useless without comprehension. Luckily, anatomy is a subject which doesn’t require an enormous deal of getting your head around. That is to say, it’s not the complexity of the material, but the volume that makes anatomy a difficult subject. Fortunately, understanding the material begins to happen automatically during your acquiring phase.

If you come across a concept, function or relationship that you don’t understand, don’t ignore it and hope that it will go away. Make the effort to spend a little bit of extra time getting your head around it. Funnily enough, it’s quite often the topics that we initially struggled with that we end up retaining for months and years to come. As long as we've made the effort to spend more time trying to understand them.

Phase three: Explore

The explore phase is very important, and is what sets average grade students apart from A grade students. Here you’ll begin exploring your previously acquired information and deepening your understanding. This is where holistic learning really begins. It is here that you start connecting topics, integrating new information with your existing knowledge, reducing forgetfulness. You're laying the groundworks for making knowledge more easily accessible in years to come! Here are three different ways you can start exploring:

  1. Depth exploration - This involves delving into the topic and building on the foundation you have laid during the acquire phase. As an example, let’s say you’re learning about the aorta. Towards the method of depth exploration, you could ask yourself: Why is it called an aorta? Who and how was it discovered? Why does it branch so extensively? What’s inside it?
  2. Lateral exploration - This is all about connecting the subject with other aspects. For example, you could compare the aorta with other medical structures. Simply ask yourself: What other arteries are similar to this one? How does it differ from other arteries? What structures are adjacent to it? And so on. It’s all about finding similarities and differences between features that are not apparent initially. Learning what makes a structure unique is key to preventing you from muddling everything up later on.
  3. Vertical exploration - Here you can start to relate your topic with concepts from completely different subject areas. For example, comparing the aorta with something from nature, physics, maths or economics. Ask yourself: Can I compare the aorta with a tree and the water flowing through its branches? How does it relate to the plumbing system in my home? Does it behave like a water hose? What about its layers - what does it remind me of? Have fun with it!
Photo by: Branislav Nenin

Photo by: Branislav Nenin

Phase four: Debug

We’re bound to make a few silly mistakes when we first learn a new topic. Perhaps you’ll misunderstand a function, or confuse one structure with another. Links and relations between concepts are bound to be imperfect. That’s why the debugging phase is so important. Here you can untangle any misconceptions to avoid making a mistake in your exam later on. Two methods you can use towards this are:

  • Tests/Quizzes - There’s no better way to reveal your shortcomings than with a quiz! Keep reading to learn how you can learn and consolidate anatomy knowledge effectively with this method.

  • Extra reading - There’s no getting around it. The more you read, the more you’ll be exposed to a topic, and consequently the more you’ll hopefully learn. Seek out resources that allow you to build on previous knowledge, like more advanced quiz levels or super detailed online articles and textbooks.

Phase five: Apply

You’re almost at the final stage! Here is where you can really ascertain how well you know a topic. Only when you start applying all that anatomy knowledge to the real world can you truly say that you have mastered it. For healthcare students, this is especially significant. This is because anatomy is often learned in a very descriptive and abstract capacity in the initial years before clinical application.

Luckily, doing this with anatomy is very straightforward. Here’s a couple of ways you can begin the process of application:

  • Ask “what if?” -  Always explore the possibilities and alternatives. Continuing with our aorta example, you could ponder: What if I perform a surgery and I cut the aorta? What if a blood clot blocks the aorta? What if the blood pressure of a patient increases? Imagine yourself being in a hospital dealing with an anatomical structure in real time.

  • Apply anatomy to everyday life - Don’t restrict expanding your anatomy knowledge to your study sessions. Instead, think about how your anatomy relates to your actions during everyday life. For instance: What happens to my body when I eat my dinner? What lower limb muscles are acting when I walk to the shop? Learning doesn’t have to be boring, so mix it up!

The apply phase gives context and forces you to connect many different subjects together, helping you to see the big picture and avoid squashing anatomy into one discrete box inside your brain.

Photo by: Syda Productions

Photo by: Syda Productions

Phase six: Test

Aha! The last step: testing. Testing is a crucial part of learning - there are no two ways about it. It simultaneously helps you learn by forming the backbone of active recall while also providing feedback about the accuracy of your knowledge. Always make sure to test yourself after learning something to prevent your hard work from going to waste.

One great way to test yourself is with the quizzes from the leading online anatomy learning platform, Kenhub. They have five different quiz types, including clinical style questions and even customisable quizzes that you can build according to the topic you want to test yourself on most. Not only this, but the quizzes are available in a range of difficulty levels from beginner to advanced. Therefore, you can try a beginner level at the start of your learning journey and an advanced quiz at the end, to see how effective your study session was.  

By answering various styles of questions, you can easily pinpoint where the problem is. Did you misidentify a vein in a picture? Acquiring or debugging was done incorrectly. Did a muscle function or innervation trip you up? Go back over to the explore and apply phases.

Now, if you’ve read right to the end of this article, you may understandably be feeling a little overwhelmed. Don’t panic. Naturally, you won’t have time to use the holistic learning technique for every piece of knowledge. As we’ve established, anatomy is an extremely vast subject area. The type of information you should use holistic learning for, however, is the particularly critical and difficult information. If either of these are cloudy, it will be very difficult for you to add more layers onto your existing knowledge.

So there we have it. How to learn anatomy and remember it, too. Now all there is to do is put these tips into practice. Good luck with your studies - you’ve got this!