Help your students study more effectively for your A&P course!

Published September 15, 2017

By Michael Koot, Ph.D. McGraw-Hill

There’s no shortage of teaching challenges in the A&P course. From prerequisite remediation to student engagement and everything in between, teaching students how to succeed in A&P can feel like a mystery.

As instructors, there are many things we can do to address these challenges. But after you have checked all the boxes for instructional tips and design, you should ask yourself “Do my students know how to study?”

The answer is most likely that they don’t know what it means to “study” – let alone know how to study for a course like Anatomy & Physiology, Human Anatomy, or Human Physiology. Courses in these fields are unique because they require students to master many different skills to succeed in these course areas. Students need to understand and visualize anatomical relationships, understand and decipher anatomical terminology that is grounded in Greek and Latin suffixes and prefixes, and also understand complex physiological processes. Taking an A&P course is like being enrolled in a physical geography and foreign language course at the exact same time!

What is The Problem?

I remember talking to many of my students who were spending hours doing what they thought was “studying”, but were not seeing their hard work pay off on their exam performance. I realized the majority of students had not been taught how to study for a college level science course, yet alone for a course that requires a student to possess spatial relationship skills as well as master a new vocabulary. Furthermore, do students even realize that “studying” is really all about learning?

Students need to be taught how to learn, which is defined in this essay as gains in long-term memory. I believe that the role of each instructor is to help students develop study skills that can be used in their specific course area, while also teaching students the course related content. In A&P courses, there is already so much scientific information to cover and not enough time to cover it fully. Many of you are wondering “how can I also teach study skills for A&P on top of the scientific content?” Spending just a little bit of time on developing your students’ study skills will have benefits for your students that will extend beyond just the semester that the student is enrolled in your course. You will actually be teaching your students skills that they will use in other science courses, and continue to use throughout their journey as a lifelong learner in their chosen health care related field.

How Can You Help Me?

To assist you in helping you develop your students’ study skills for a course in an A&P related field, I am sharing with you the top ten tips I shared with my students in a section of my syllabus titled “How do I study for this course”.

This list of study tips developed organically from my own personal experiences as first a gross anatomy student and then as an instructor. After a fairly mediocre performance on my first exam in medical gross anatomy, I quickly realized that I needed a better method for learning anatomy. I started talking to my peers about what they were doing to successfully learn the material. This is when I started implementing several of the strategies you will read about below. I vividly remember reorganizing lecture content into simple line drawings, tables, and summary note cards.

This list continued to develop in an informal manner as I transitioned to teaching A&P at a local community college and leading supplemental instruction groups for medical students enrolled in human anatomy. It wasn’t until I became the course director for a human anatomy course at a large four-year university that I started posting the list in the course syllabus under the section “How should I study for this course?”

Tips #1-3

#1 Preview – Preview the material before lecture (or lab). Lecture (or lab) will make much more sense if you’ve previewed what will be discussed!

#2 Look (or Read) – Look at the images to be covered in lecture (or lab). A&P is a very visual course.

#3 Review – Review the prior lecture’s material by re-writing your notes or making summary tables / flow charts.

These are three stages of learning that a student in any science course needs to know about and actively complete. Students do not know the science behind learning – they are unaware that previewing content can help scaffold information in their brain and will help them to better organize and chunk material. So be sure to tell them about how important these three stages are for proper learning (what students typically call “studying”). The Review or Practice component emphasizes the concepts of recall and spaced retrieval, and is how a student can move information from short-term to long-term memory.

Depending on how important reading textbook content before class is for your course, you could also amend the “Look” stage to include “Read”. SmartBook by McGraw-Hill is an adaptive reading experience that allows instructors to assign specific topics from within a textbook. Students then alternate between reading and answering questions to complete this formative assignment. The use of this digital tool makes students accountable for doing some work before class (both Preview and Read) and also allows students to continue quizzing themselves after class (Review / Practice).

Tip #4 - Visual & Notes

Always study your notes while you have something visual to also examine. You need to be able to combine visual images with black and white text.

This tip is very important for any A&P course – whether it be a standard A&P course, human anatomy, or a human physiology course. Students often rely on simply reading and looking over their course notes. Encourage them to combine both reading while also looking at visuals from lecture Power Points, or from their textbook.

Anatomy and Physiology Revealed 3.2 (APR) is a great tool for visually studying human anatomy & physiology outside of the classroom or lab. APR is a website that allows students to virtually dissect a human cadaver. My students utilized APR in many creative ways, but one of the most common was simply to have APR open on their laptop or tablet device while they were studying their notes. Ask your students how they use the search feature in APR, and you will quickly learn that they find it easy to use, and they think it sure beats using the index in a textbook or anatomy atlas. My students commented that this feature was essential to their study – whenever they would sit down to study they made sure they always had their device open to APR.

1) Access to the search box is available from anywhere in APR.

2) Enter the structure you are looking for into the search box and then select the module that may be most helpful.

3) Click on any of the links, and you will be taken directly to the module to view this structure and read about its key features.

Tip #5 – Avoid Cramming

Study A&P every day or at least every other day! More frequent studying is preferable to two or three days of just studying A&P. Set a schedule where you spend at least some time every day either previewing or reviewing A&P information.

Do your students cram? Of course they do, but a question to first ask yourself is whether your course design is making it easier for them to cram? If you have a course with just a few large summative assessments, such as quizzes and exams, this is actually making it easier for students to cram in your course. Consider having multiple formative assessments throughout a given unit in your course, and then perhaps one or two quizzes before your unit exam. Having assignments that are due each week can decrease the likelihood that students cram.

Secondly, be sure to educate your students about the dangers of cramming. Speak to them about how learning is dependent on moving information from short-term to long-term memory. To best facilitate learning, they need daily periods of studying separated with good rest and a healthy lifestyle. I encouraged my students to do something every day to study for anatomy, even if it was only 15-20 minutes previewing the next day’s lecture, or 30 minutes reviewing that day’s lecture.

I just discovered this great website by the University of Queensland Brain Institute that you could share with your students to give them some foundation in the science of memory and learning.

Or, share this quick summary with them- I think this is excellent!

Tip #6 – Organize

Organize the course material in a manner that makes the most sense to you. Perhaps, you create notecards that summarize similar information, design a flow chart, draw simple line diagrams, create mnemonics, or create a table or chart of information.

Encourage your students to be creative and open to ideas to make the content their own. The possibilities are endless, but anything that students can do to take the content out of their notes or textbook and organize it into a different structure will help them learn.

Sometimes it is important for an instructor to proactively model this process. When I learned gross anatomy, I was told about the idea of making a summary notecard for each of the twelve cranial nerves. This strategy was so successful for me that I encouraged my students to do it as well. However, I told them that a digital slide would work just as well as the paper note card that I had used many years earlier. I gave them a very clear template for the type of information that they should include for each cranial nerve. Here is an example of what they produced:

I also encouraged them to make tables or charts to better organize information and allow for easy compare and contrast for different categories. Here is how one group of students summarized the neurovascular supply to the digestive systems.

As an instructor, don’t be afraid to share with your students how their peers have organized content. You may even try having a discussion board in your course LMS (learning management system) dedicated to allowing students to share their study ideas and materials with their peers.

Tip #7 – Quiz Yourself

Make your own exam questions. This is a great technique to utilize once you have done a fair amount of studying. Ensure you don’t shy away from quizzing yourself on topics you’re not confident about!

Encourage your students to practice. Tell them to review the content they know and don’t know and practice retrieving that information. Forced recall is a great method. One way students can do this is write their own multiple choice style questions that would be typical of what they may see on their exam. Students will quickly learn that writing a good multiple choice question takes quite a bit of content knowledge. You may also consider adding a discussion board to your course LMS where students can share their multiple choice questions with their peers.

Also encourage your students to leverage many of the different technology resources within Connect that allow for students to quiz themselves.

Anatomy & Physiology Revealed 3.2 has a quiz feature that allows students to test their knoweldge and also learn from their mistakes. When a student answers a question, they receive immediate feedabck on whether their answer is correct or incorrect. After completing their quiz in APR, students can quickly click on a hyperlink that will take them directly to a module within APR where they can review the structure they missed on the quiz. You can learn more about the quiz feature in APR by watching this video:

Students can also utilize SmartBook to practice quizzing themselves on questions related to the specific chapter in a textbook. First, students must select their level of metacognition before selecting an answer to the question. This helps students to identify what topics they are aware that they know, and perhaps most importantly the topics they are unaware that they don’t know. After selecting an answer, students then receive immediate feedback on whether they had the correct answer.

You can learn more about how SmartBook works by watching this video:

Tip #8 – Explain

You master a concept best when you are able to explain it. Practice explaining what you’ve learned – a process or a concept – to someone who knows nothing about A&P and / or to a fellow classmate.

Tip #9 – Study Group

Meet weekly or before every exam with several other students to learn the material. Assign each member different challenging topics and have that person teach it to the others in the group. You can also create a few questions on certain topics and then meet and share them with your group. Through the process of creating the questions you will become an “expert” in those topics and better explain / clarify this information to each other.

Study groups are an effective way for students to stay on top of the content and it helps them avoid cramming. An effective study group can utilize all of the other tips in this list.

Tip #10 – Office Hours

Make appointments to meet with your instructor to clarify information.

As an instructor you know that the first step for a student to receive help is to come and visit your office hours. Once the student is in your office, you can share this list of study tips with the student and ask him / her which of these strategies that s/he is currently implementing as s/he studies for your course.

How else can you help the student? One very effective implementation of SmartBook is for a student to share his / her reports for SmartBook assignments with his / her instructor during office hours. Instead of a student coming into your office hour and saying, “I just don’t understand anything about the bone tissue chapter”, a student can actually share his/her SmartBook report of Most Challenging Learning Objectives with you for this particular chapter. This provides you the instructor a quick and easy way to identify certain topics that you can help the student to remediate.

You can learn more about SmartBook reports by watching this video:

Hopefully these tips will help to set expectations for your students and provide an environment for them to thrive in your course. If we do our part by creating intelligent course design and arming our students with the tools they need to succeed, we have won half the battle. For more teaching tips that are specific to your personal course challenges, check out our Interactive Course Challenge Quiz.
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