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Help Students Study Effectively for Your A&P Course!

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. Instructors have many ways to address these challenges. But after you have checked all the boxes for instructional tips and course design, have you asked yourself: “Do my students know how to study?” In this article, I will share my top 10 tips to help students be more effective at studying for their A&P (anatomy & physiology, human anatomy, or human physiology) course.

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 with high performance on exams. I realized most students had not been taught how to study for a college-level science course—yet alone for a course like anatomy & physiology, human anatomy, or human physiology. Courses in these fields are unique because they require students to master a new vocabulary grounded in Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes, along with visualizing anatomical relationships, integrating form and function, and understanding 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! 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 article as the process of acquiring new knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors.  In addition to teaching students course-related content, I believe the role of each instructor is to also help students develop study skills that can be used in their specific course area.  In A&P courses, there is already so much scientific information to cover and not enough time to fully cover it. 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 to develop your students’ study skills will have benefits for your students that will extend beyond just the semester the student is enrolled in your course. You will be teaching them skills they will use in other science courses and continue to use throughout their journey as lifelong learner in their chosen healthcare-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 the top 10 tips I listed 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 mediocre performance on my first exam in medical gross anatomy, I quickly realized I needed a better method for learning anatomy. I began 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?”

Over the past few years, I have become more familiar with the actual science behind my study tips. Scientists in the field of cognitive psychology have identified six evidence-based techniques for effective learning strategies: spaced practice, retrieval practice, interleaving, dual coding, elaboration, and concrete examples. I have noted these strategies when appropriate in the list of study tips below.

I recommend two websites that do an excellent job at detailing these learning strategies and providing actionable activities for students and educators alike. The Learning Scientists website and podcast is an excellent resource for educators and students to better understand how learning works and find materials and resources to share with your students. This website by the University of Queensland Brain Institute is also one you could share with your students to give them some foundation in the science of memory and learning, or share this quick summary poster with them.

Tips #1-3: Three Steps of Engaging with Content

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

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

#3 Review and Practice – Review the prior lecture material by rewriting or retyping your notes and/or making summary tables, flashcards, or flow charts.

These are three activities a student in any science course needs to know about and actively complete before and after lecture/lab. Students often 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 material when they hear it again. 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 evidence-based concepts of spaced practice and retrieval practice for how a student can move information from short-term to long-term memory. More specific strategies for practice are described below.

SmartBook® by McGraw Hill is a digital product 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 adaptive assessment tool makes students accountable for doing some work before class (both Preview and Read) and allows students to continue quizzing themselves after class (Review and Practice).

Tip #4 – Visuals & Words

Always study your notes while you also have something visual to examine. You need to be able to compare visual images to text. Look at visuals and explain what you see. Draw your own visuals for a topic.

This tip is very important for any A&P course—whether it be a standard anatomy & physiology course, human anatomy, or 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 PowerPoints, or from their textbook. Also explain to students the importance of drawing their own simple schematics. This evidence-based technique for learning is termed dual coding by scientists in field of cognitive psychology.

Anatomy and Physiology Revealed 4.0 (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 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 their device was open to APR.

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

Image shows the interface for APR website. The upper right corner of the screen has a search box. Anterior view of deep dissection of arm muscles with structure information for the long head of the biceps muscle on the left side of screen. 


2) Type the name of the structure you are looking for into the search box. You will see results for all the applicable content areas in APR such as Dissection, 3D Model, Practice Atlas, Histology, and Imaging.

Image shows a list of search results for the term left atrioventricular valve in APR website.

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