Is Physiology Hard? (Beginner Tips!)

It’s time to make some hard choices. You take a look at your list of possible courses and you find physiology. “Sounds interesting”, you think. “But I need to keep that GPA high!”

I feel you. As a med student, I’ve been there…

So is physiology hard?

Physiology can be a tough subject to study. It’s very mathematical compared to straight anatomy. And requires the learning, understanding and application of various physics formulas to work out what’s happening in different organ systems of the body. For many students, they can be hard to get to grips with!

Personally speaking, it’s been one of the subjects I’ve found most difficult during med school. It’s also one, having moved on to other courses that build on it, that’s definitely worth the time to master the first time around.

So that’s why I’ve put together this article. I want to help prime you with what I feel you need to know before you dive into physiology. Hopefully it’ll help you save time later.

We’ll cover:

  • The hardest things about physiology
  • The areas where you need to put the most effort
  • How it compares to other subjects
  • What you can do to best prepare for it

Ready to get started? Let’s go.

What’s so difficult about physiology?

Here are the main reasons I feel physiology can be tricky:

  1. Physics formulas: first you have to understand them (not easy), memorize them and then apply them – math-based questions can be hard!
  2. The way it’s taught: explaining concepts like flow, pressure and force requires a certain simplicity. Not every professor has it.
  3. Values and ranges: more numbers you really need to get right before you can begin to understand if what’s happening is “normal” or not

Interestingly, this 2007 study, which surveyed over 60 postsecondary (college level) physiology teachers about the difficulty of their subject, mentions a couple of these things too.

When presented with the statement “I found physiology hard to learn,” 29/61 students agreed or strongly agreed, whereas 27/61 students disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement (the remaining 5/61 students were neutral). Thus, almost half of the students indicated that they thought physiology was hard.

What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a faculty survey

Further investigation in the survey also show two things highlighting physiology’s supposed difficulty:

  • Students believing learning and memorization to be the same thing
  • Students experiencing difficulties with casual reasoning, graphs and mathematics
  • Volume of information and compartmentalising all the information

So it seems there’s quite a few contributing factors!

What do you learn in physiology?

According to Physoc.org, physiology is a branch of biology that studies the “mechanisms of living things.”

A brief overview of the what you might expect to learn on a biology/healthcare-related physiology course include:

  • Cell physiology (membranes, osmosis etc)
  • Neurophysiology (action potentials, synaptic transmission etc)
  • Cardiovascular physiology
  • Respiratory physiology
  • Renal and acid-base physiology
  • Gastrointestinal physiology
  • Endocrine physiology
  • Sexual differentiation

And again each of these topics can be broken down into sub-categories too.

Is human physiology hard?

Human physiology is the focus of this article and yes it’s hard.

The physiology of other living organisms could be comparably easier. It depends what you’re studying.

Botanists, for example, have far more simpler organisms to study (plants). While some vetinarian’s, especially those focused on diverse groups of animals (reptiles, amphibians, bovines etc.), might have an even tougher time.

Learning human physiology first however, and understanding the physics at play, can be a massive help when studying other organisms!

Does physiology have lab?

Most physiology courses have lab.

As it’s an experimental science, meaning that it’s under constant examination via research, lab is very important in the subject. Doing experiments, and seeing the laws of physics in action, can help you get a better appreciation (and hopefully understanding) of physiology too.

But it’s also another reason why many students don’t like it.

Especially those that find lab boring!

Is physiology harder than anatomy?

As it’s common for both subjects to be taught together (A&P), it can be difficult to argue which is more difficult.

In the U.S., A&P attrition (failure) rates are between thirty and forty percent (source). Although the data isn’t conclusive, that rate is probably down to physiology rather than anatomy. This is because of the applied math required in physiology, which isn’t as representative in anatomy.

Of course the real answer over what’s the more difficult, especially because they’re so often taught together, is mainly subjective.

But it’s also dependent on the academic backgrounds of students. So while many nurses say physiology is harder, many med students (with calculus backgrounds) might argue the opposite.

My own personal opinion (as a nontrad med student without a math or physics background) is that anatomy is still the easier out the two.

This is because:

  • Anatomy has conventional terminology: helps you guess questions right you don’t know the answer to
  • Anatomy is more dependent on memorization rather than “applied science”: it’s less about intuition and more about hard work

Physiology, for me at least, requires more time (to first understand then apply) out the two.

Is anatomy and physiology hard online?

A lot of students, especially in recent years, have turned to taking A&P exclusively online.

How hard an online class is (in the subject), comes down to the learning platform and quality of instruction. If the both the visuals and explanations of the concepts is poor, it’ll be very tough to learn both effectively. That’s why both are dependent on cadaver-based study or 3D modelling. It’s hard to get a sense of how the body works from 2D instruction.

To figure out how hard your course will be check it’s reviews. Is the difficulty something a lot of previous students are talking about?

Is physiology harder than microbiology?

Sometimes. Physiology is mostly conceptual thinking where is Microbiology is a divide between memorization and conceptualization (about a 50/50 split).

Most of microbiology can be learned of off flashcards. Physiology needs to be more carefully applied.

This all depends on how both courses are taught of course – as well as what resources you use to learn from.

What level of study you find yourself at is also relevant. Majoring in microbiology is totally different to taking an introductory A&P class for credit. Most pre-med’s learn physiology first for a reason.

Working out which course is potentially harder requires common sense!

Is Physiology harder than Chemistry?

Most students (especially nurses) experiences suggest chemistry is harder than physiology. Fundamental chem is mostly all math while organic chem is a lot of memorization. The involvement of more math could be something that makes chem harder.

Again, it’s all dependent on the individual, how efficiently they study and which subject they enjoy most!

On that note…

What can I do to best prepare for physiology?

Physiology is a lot easier with good resources.

Here are my suggested favorites:

  • BRS Physiology (Board Review Series): this is intended for U.S. med students but is a great, and exceptionally well explained, textbook. It covers the major concepts in short bullet points and ends each chapter with extensive quizzes that really help cement the foundations.
  • A great video-based platform: check out my reviews of mnemonic heavy platforms like Osmosis and Picmonic for inspiration.

My Personal Experiences Studying Physiology

In most international European medical schools, where the curriculum is not systems-based, physiology is a second year subject. At my University it is taught separately to anatomy but both subjects finals occur at the end of the same semester.

Knowing your anatomy well will certainly help your physiology (and vice versa). But, as mentioned earlier, physiology requires more effort in the understanding. This was true at least in my case!

What helped me personally was to use video explainers for some of the more difficult concepts; hemodynamics, acid-base relationships etc. This helped me to better visualize what was happening in the body, as well as to see the tricky physics formulas in action.

Final Thoughts

Physiology can be a tough subject for various reasons. Hopefully this article explains why students struggle with it so that you can see you’re not alone!

Good study habits, the right resources and a patient strategy can all help you overcome its challenges.

I did, so why can’t you?

Image credit: Robina Weermeijer at Unsplash


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