Physiology, given that it’s one of the more math-heavy subjects on a core medical curriculum, can be a hard subject for a lot of med students. It requires learning, understanding and applying various formulas to the main organ systems of the body. As well as recognising the key anatomical features of each.
Personally, it was a subject I found difficult at med school. Especially without a physics background! That said, with the right resources, I was able to do well. Even scoring the top grade when it came down to the final.
But let’s take a closer look at this topic and try to answer some of the more common questions relating to physiology’s challenging aspects.
What Do You Learn in Physiology?
According to Physoc.org, physiology is a branch of biology that studies the “mechanisms of living things.” From a medical perspective, this extends mainly to humans. Which is why you might also see the topic referred to as “human physiology” too.
A brief overview of the what you might expect to learn in healthcare regarding the topic, can be best summarised by the chapter headings of my recommended learning resource; Costanzo’s Physiology. These are the topics most classes will cover:
- 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
Each of these topics can be broken down into sub-categories themselves. With each paying great attention to how these systems work, what laws of physics they adhere to and what happens, relationally, between each of them.
The point of the course, how I see it, is to understand the normal functioning of the human body so that we’re better placed, as future medics, to identify dysfunction and disease.
It’s also an experimental science. Meaning that it’s under constant examination and scrutiny through research. This is also the reason why most medical students will be expected to study the subject alongside laboratory work too.
Is Anatomy or Physiology Harder?
As it’s common for both subjects to be taught together, it’s sometimes difficult to discern which is the harder topic out of anatomy or physiology. Most students however, will have experiences from pre-med courses that taught both separately. Especially in the US.
The truth is the answer to this question is subjective. And strongly dependent on the academic backgrounds of the students taking each. Nurses, for example, another group expected to learn physiology, often report physiology being the more difficult subject of the two. Namely because anatomy has conventional terminology, meaning you can generally infer examination questions more easily.
Another reason some students report anatomy being the easier course of the two is that it’s fundamentally dependent on memorization rather than application. Meaning mastery is dependent on time spent familiarising yourself with the material. Mapping out the human body in your mind.
Physiology, it could be argued, requires a greater time expenditure to understand why relationships between organ systems exist. As well as how they work.
Why is Physiology Hard?
According to this 2007 study entitled “What Makes Physiology Hard to Learn”, over 60 postsecondary (college level) physiology teachers responded to an 18-question survey. Reasons for believing physiology is hard includes the following:
- The nature of the discipline
- The way it is taught
- What students bring to the task of learning
The suggestion surrounding the “nature” of physiology as a subject, points to it “requiring causal reasoning, using graphs and mathematics and being highly integrative.” But teachers also report student struggles compartmentalising the information and believing “learning and memorisation [to be] the same thing.”
Based on my personal experience as a student of the subject, this makes sense. Unlike other topics; anatomy, pathology, microbiology etc, where rote memorisation is the order of the day, physiology requires more effort. Students must visualise the mathematical relationships and the formulas at work, rather than memorise what they stand for, to truly excel in the discipline.
For most of us without a math background (like myself) that’s a challenging task.
Another common complaint that the subject faces in terms of difficulty is volume. A lot of students report physiology being very broad, spanning all organ systems, as well as building on a solid foundation of knowledge most are expected to learn in pre-med.
Without that foundation, or with a sub-par understanding, the subject can become even more difficult.
Which poses it’s own problems, especially as physiology is well represented in board or medical licencing examinations like the US’ USMLE series and the UK’s PLAB. Meaning students would do well to work hard and master it.
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. Hence complementing each other well.
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 enabled me to better visualise what was happening in the body, as well as to see the tricky physics formulas as an image rather than mathematical notation.
YouTube is great in this regard, especially channels like Ninja Nerd Lectures, AK Lectures and the narrated commentaries of Armando Hasudungan. Dr Najeeb also has a very clear way of breaking down concepts too.
To learn more about how I tackled physiology – and other pre-clinical subjects – check out my article how to study medicine effectively.
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