How to Do Well in Anatomy

Most health students need to learn the names of muscles, bones, organs, and major nerves and blood vessels.

If you're studying to become a physician, nurse or other healthcare professional, chances are you have to study anatomy. Even if you find it interesting, anatomy can be a rather challenging course due to the sheer amount of material to memorize. The best strategy to learn the material varies from one person to the next, but flashcards and interactive quizzes are a tried-and-true strategy that make a good starting point.

Find out exactly what you will be expected to know for each anatomy exam. Some schools may require you to know the Latin names of the anatomical structures, whereas others might only require the English names. It's important to know, for example, whether you need to identify a venous blockage as "clot" or "embolus." Each exam may focus on a specific organ system (such as digestive), or be devoted to bones and muscles in specific portions of the body (such as the head and neck).

Review the anatomical structures you need to know in a good anatomy atlas, ideally one with full-color illustrations. If you know that your exam will involve identification of structures on cadavers, look for an atlas that includes photographs.

Use anatomical models or other three-dimensional structures to see how the anatomical structures fit together. Even in the best anatomy atlases, it can be hard to visualize the complex actions of the different blood vessels and nerves, for example. If you don't have access to a model, try an interactive computer programs.

Make or purchase flash cards that you can shuffle and use to test yourself on the different structures you're expected to know. Making your own flash cards may be time-consuming, but the process of drawing the structures and writing out the names and basic facts on the the cards might help solidify them in your memory. Many mobile-device applications allow you to make electronic flash cards, which help with studying on the go.

Quiz yourself. Open to random pages from your anatomy atlas, cover the labels on the images with a sheet of paper, then try to identify each structure without looking at the answer. Your anatomy textbook might also have practice quizzes in the back of the book or on a companion website.

Go to all available anatomy labs, if your school offers them. No atlas or software program can give you as good of a picture of anatomy as a cadaver dissection.

  • Instead of just names and locations, study the functions of the anatomical structures you're expected to know. This might make it easier to remember what they're called.
  • If you will be expected to learn the Latin names of anatomical structures, find out what the Latin names mean. This can be especially helpful with muscles. As many muscles are named after their function, knowing the Latin name can help you deduce the function of a muscle and vice versa. For example, the muscle called m. extensor pollicis brevis is the shorter of the two muscles that extends the thumb.
  • Find or develop mnemonics to remember structures that sit together in a series. For example, a common mnemonic for remembering the five branches of the facial nerve is "To Zanzibar By Motor Car" for temporal, zygomatic, buccal, masseteric, cervical.
  • Keep your flashcards and atlas even after the exam, and review the material on occasion to keep it fresh in your mind.

Kay Daniels is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience writing and editing online. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Excelsior College, a certificate in copy editing from University of California, San Diego Extension, and is in her second year of medical school.