Graduate-level dissection-based human gross anatomy is one of the more time-consuming courses in any graduate or medical program. Note I did not say “most difficult,” “most challenging,” or “hardest.” Nothing in gross anatomy is particularly intellectually challenging, at least not initially. Gross anatomy does, however, require discipline and time. I have the privilege of teaching over 200 first year osteopathic medical and MS students every fall, and every fall, students struggle for the same reasons. They are not making effective use of their time, and they spread their studying over too many resources. Well, some of them struggle because they simply don’t bother putting in the time, but if you’re reading this, then that’s probably not your problem!
Here’s what you need to do to succeed in your donated body dissection lab:
1. Read your assigned dissector pages before going to lab. You need to proceed through the assigned dissections as accurately and quickly as possible and knowing your checkpoints and goals is critical. The point of supervised lab time is to have guidance from TAs, fellows, and professors while you are working – get your dissection work done first and study second. Study on your own time. Which leads to point two…
2. For every hour of scheduled lab time, plan on spending at least an hour and a half studying on your own in the lab.
3. When you are studying on your own in lab, do not take a lab list of structures and attempt to find each structure on a single body. This is a terrible waste of time. Instead, write down a dozen structures from your lab list that made frequent appearance in the corresponding lecture(s) on a notecard. Then go find the first structure on a donor, using your dissector and atlas to guide yourself. The first donor you attempt to find the structure on will be challenging and likely take some time. The second donor you go to find the structure on will also take some time. By the time you get to the third and fourth donors, you should be able to find the structure quickly with the aid of the dissector and atlas. When you get to the fifth and sixth donors, you should be able to find the structure quickly and without references. Arguably the most important thing you will learn in your graduate gross anatomy course is an appreciation for anatomical variation. There’s no better way to appreciate variation in, for example, the palmaris longus muscle, than by looking at a dozen forearms, one after the other.
4. Don’t stay in lab finding structures for more than 1.5-2 hours at a time. You do not have the mental stamina to effectively study for longer periods of time. Staying in lab ‘all day’ is a waste of a day! If you need to double up your study time on a given day, then go in the morning and take a break and then come back in the afternoon or evening.
5. Group studying comes after mastering the content by yourself. You need to learn the material well enough that you can lead others. Group studying on the weekend is a great way to reinforce and refresh what you learned on your own during the week.
Studying for gross anatomy lecture is a bit different than preparing in lab:
1. GO TO CLASS.
2. Take notes by hand. You need to start mastering the art of note-taking if you haven’t already. You can type faster than you can think but you think faster than you can write. Taking notes by hand gives your brain time to process what you’re writing down. And you are constantly filtering out less important information. Whether you take notes by hand with pen and paper or take notes by hand with a stylus and Surface Pro does not matter; what matters is that you aren’t trying to transcribe a lecture (which is a terrible waste of effort).
3. Stick with your notes and the professor’s slides. The professor is distilling information down to what is most important (or at least he or she should be!). Use your textbook for definitions, and potentially useful figures and tables, but anatomy texts are terribly boring and dense and it’s probably not worth your time reading whole passages or worse, whole chapters.
4. Don’t start answering exam prep questions from anatomy or board review books until you actually know some of the material. I do not understand why students go through review questions on content they’ve not even learned; answering questions does not teach you the material; answering questions helps you crystallize what you already know.
In general, these four points are important:
1. Meet with your professors in their office hours the first or second week of class, or soon after a new professor starts lecturing. You can learn more about succeeding in the professor’s class in 15 minutes than on your own in hours and hours. (Hopefully. Not all professors are helpful.)
2. Don’t spread yourself thin with resources, and don’t waste time trying to find that one magical resource that will illuminate everything anatomical and save you so much time that you get to party all weekend. There are hundreds of gross anatomy websites, apps, books, YouTube videos, etc. A copy of Gray’s Anatomy 1st Edition from 1858 is all you need to get a good grade in gross anatomy. Yes, humans are still evolving, but 150 or so years isn’t enough time for the human body to have changed that much. Whatever book your instructors assigned will help you get a good grade.
3. Draw anatomy. I have zero drawing/painting/sketching/doodling talent. I can still manage to symbolize anatomical structures with basic geometric shapes. Buy a whiteboard and dry erase markers and draw anatomy to reinforce the relationships between structures. Start by using a figure from your book as a guide, then erase the drawing. Draw as much as you can from memory, then open the book back up and finish it off. Erase it. Draw as much as you can from memory, then open the book back up and finish it off. Erase it. Draw as much as you can from…
4. Students answer questions, and masters ask them. Succinctly, the transition from student to master begins when you know the material well enough to ask questions about it. In the context of a graduate/professional school gross anatomy course, this means you should consider writing your own practice questions. Sitting down, thinking the content through, and creating useful, insightful questions forces you to engage the content in depth. This is where group studying can really pay off – have each member of your group write a few questions for each lecture you’re going to review. Then ask each other your questions. Your peers will provide constructive feedback, and chances are the better questions will be fairly representative of what your instructors might ask on the actual exam. When you have mastered the material so well that you can anticipate exam questions (at least with reasonable approximation), you’re beginning to move beyond being a student.
Please feel free to share your own anatomy study tips with me: throckmorton dot z at gmail dot com.