Figuring out how to study for an anatomy practical is a bit of minefield. Unlike ‘normal’ anatomy that allows you to sit at home studying from apps, flashcards or books, practical anatomy puts you in the lab. It also requires you to get comfortable with the technical side of the subject.
For a newcomer that’s intimidating stuff. Learning how to operate a microscope or wield a scalpel is often challenging enough. Let alone working out what the heck it is you’re meant to be doing.
Anatomy practical was definitely a difficult subject for me. On reflection though, there are definitely some tips I can share that I feel could help. Here’s a quick summary of what I’d recommend doing:
- Accept the challenge
- Use a good dissection guide
- Ask your professor for tips
- Know what questions to expect
- Hold organs in your hands
- Focus on orientation over identification
- Learn tissue types and key landmarks
- Ask active questions while dissecting/observing
- Use mnemonics
- Don’t rely on colleagues
- Be consistent with resources
Ready for a bit more context? Let’s dive in.
What is Anatomy Practical?
Anatomy practicals generally refer to the part of an anatomy exam that involves physical lab work. This is in direct contrast to the written component of an anatomy exam; a section where you’ll usually have to answer questions or write an essay.
Anatomy practical work can be cadaver-based, where you might be asked to identify dissected structures. It might also include histology sections (where you’ll be asked to look and identify microscopic slides or their components), osteology sections (bones) and parts of embryology and radiology too.
The way these practicals are structured depends entirely on how your school, college or University organises them. As medical school curriculums differ quite a lot, there’s no such thing as a typical anatomy practical. Although most do seem to include the sections explained above!
Tips On How To Study For An Anatomy Practical
Now for the tips.
These are intended as key things to keep in mind as you start and continue anatomy lab work. Things that will make preparing for an exam all the more easier.
They don’t just apply to med students either!
Using these things helped me score well on my own University’s internal exams.
#1: Accept the Challenge
The first thing you’re going to need to do when approaching anatomy lab, whether you have an upcoming exam or not, is recognise; it’s seriously tough.
As anatomy is such a huge topic with so many levels of detail, there’s a lot of learning ahead of you. That’s also on top of learning to dissect, adjust a microscope and talk your way around a radiograph (x-ray) too.
So accept that it’s completely normal to struggle, feel overwhelmed and even fail. Just don’t let that deter your ambition to master the subject.
Seriously though, learning to identify and label structures on a cadaver is a completely different story to seeing them in a book. Oftentimes, to me at least, cadavers just look like jumbled pieces of spaghetti (maybe it was just my med school’s). So figuring them out is no easy thing!
One way to get a good grasp on what you’re seeing during a live dissection, especially if it’s being done by someone else, is to use a dissection guide. These are books that offer walk-throughs of the process. Often going layer by layer and showing what the key things (nerves, vessels, organs) are to look out for.
The two best guides that usually get recommended are Rohen’s (my personal fave, especially as it’s digital – you can take it into the lab on your iPad) and Grant’s Dissector. Both these books do an excellent job of supplementing what you see. They also provide a quick reference you can use at home. Saving you extra time away from the dissection hall.
Check out my recommendations section for other top resources I use.
Use the Professor
Nobody will know what’s on your anatomy practical exam better than your professor or supervisor. Trust their knowledge. Also look out and listen for any time they mention any structure or part of anatomy that’s likely be tested.
As I already mentioned, all anatomy courses differ in the way they test students. Using the experience of your teachers, and actually asking them for their own recommendations (not just mine!), is a sensible way to figure out what your course expects of you. They’ll also maybe be able to discuss with you what was on previous exams or even run mock-style tests with you.
Usually you only have to ask!
Know What to Expect
Following on from that last tip is knowing what to expect. This means scanning course materials, syllabus points and exam guides to know exactly how you’ll be tested. I remember my own anatomy lab exam had something like 250 plus syllabus points on a five-page document!
Another good idea is to ask students in older years (if available) what anatomy lab was like for them. Maybe they can even accompany you to the dissection hall one time, or walk you through radiographs or micro slides. I did exactly this and the advice I got, specifically when it came to individual examiners and their favorite structures to test, was absolutely gold.
Hold and Position Organs
Now for some more specific lab-based tips.
The first one involves physically holding organs to observe how they look from all angles. You’ll notice a heart, for example, looks very different in the superior anterior view than it does from a posterior inferior! Since you don’t know how or what view of them you’ll get on the final exam, it pays to go over each of the possibilities.
Related: Can You Be A Doctor If You’re Squeamish?
The same goes for positioning them on a display table or in a formaldehyde container. Get a good look at everything and notice the more obvious features that can help you tell them apart.
Orientation Vs Identification
One hack to get better at anatomy practical is to figure out where you are on a cadaver by orientation rather than identification. This involves getting a broad overview of what part of the body you’re in (thorax, abdomen, limb etc) and then doubling down from there. You’ll need to familiarise yourself with these cavities and parts beforehand.
Another tip here is to work on things like your muscle origins and attachment points. That way, if something is dissected and arranged unnaturally, you can simply trace it back with your hand to figure out start or end points. Obvious the same goes for vessels and nerves too.
Don’t be afraid to really touch, feel and follow what you see. Doing so can really help.
Tissue Types and Landmarks
A good tip for improving on histology is to look at things via tissue types. This involves looking for critical microscopic features that help you determine what it is you’re looking at that’s magnified. Knowing what staining techniques are used for what (i.e. Sudan stain for lipids) can also help you work out what organ system a sample is from too.
Landmarks, on the other hand, can help in cadaver-based study. Learning the major anatomical points (as you would by covering basic tutorials) like the clavicle, sternum, epicondyles etc first, can make further exploration and study easier. Especially when communicating with colleagues and professors without touching or pointing to samples too.
Thankfully there are a lot of great, free and fast websites that can help you do this. Here are the five best anatomy websites for students I most often recommend.
Readers of this site will know I’m a huge fan of active recall techniques for study. I talk about them all the time. Just check out some of the advice I give in my article; how to study medicine more effectively for examples.
The same goes for anatomy lab. Everything you do, learn and see, you want to follow with active questioning. Ask yourself why what you’re seeing is important, where does it go, what would happen if it was blocked, obstructed, impaired etc.
And do this as you dissect. Or observe things.
Doing so serves to better contextualise what it is you’re learning. Not to mention improve your long-term recall. Or make a boring anatomy class more interesting!
Maybe you want to take some brief bullet-points in each lab class in a question-based format you can visit later during revision.
Learning useful anatomy-based mnemonics are a great way to supercharge your recall of structures, orders and positions. You can make your own if you feel more comfortable. Or use the thousands of others out there on the web made by other dedicated students or teachers.
The reasons mnemonics work great is that they help with visualising anatomy away from cadavers or images themselves. They can also be applied to each section of an anatomy lab.
Mnemonics also work better the funnier they are too.
Related: 20 Funny Medical Mnemonics
Don’t Rely On Colleagues
This could be controversial but personally I wouldn’t recommend studying for anatomy labs alone with colleagues without experienced supervision. The reason being? Anatomy is just too complicated and confusing for the inexperienced to figure out on there own.
Sure there are ways around this; I already mentioned the use of dissectors and websites for guides etc. But there’s no real substitute for a proper teacher. Someone who can show you what a real vein, artery and nerve feels like. And can also explain why.
Hint: They’re not colored blue, red and yellow in real life like they are in most anatomy atlases!
Be Consistent With Resources
The final tip I’ve got for doing well in anatomy lab is to choose one resource and stick with it. Too many times I saw colleagues of mine constantly switching books, atlases and apps etc whenever they felt something wasn’t quite working. This is a massive time waste!
It also involves you going back to scratch and having to get used to each resources’ approach to teaching and explaining.
My recommendation here is to figure out ahead of time the best resource for you. That might mean browsing several books or sites in the days leading up to class or an exam block and staying with them.
You can trust that almost all resources will have the information you need. The only difference usually is the way they present it.
Bonus: Questionable Cramming Approach
Some students also recommend spending the evening before an exam in the dissection hall to quickly go over major points. Personally, I limited my time in the hall to scheduled classes only (while keeping the aforementioned tips in mind). This is because I’d rather approach exams in a relaxed way in the lead-up to them (safe in the knowledge I’ve already prepared effectively) – not make myself more nervous!
Anatomy lab exams are tough. The environment is sterile, the professors are often unforgiving and the cadavers are well, motionless. Hopefully the pointers above can help guide you a little better.
If you want more tips on how I recommend preparing for anatomy – especially when it comes to saving time – check out my article; how to memorize anatomy quickly (the ultimate 4 step strategy). It’s not an ideal approach for a MBBS but there are some good pointers there.
You can also check out my tips on how to focus better for exams here.
Image Credit: @aurificina at Unsplash