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Five anatomy study techniques you need to start using!

Check out this great article from our friends at Kenhub on the best ways to maximise your anatomy study to make sure you too can impress your surg reg! We hope you will enjoy the hints and tips and incorporate them into your anatomy learning!

30 Jun 2019

The human body is a complex and intricate piece of engineering in which every structure plays a precise role. There are approximately 200 bones, over 600 muscles, a dozen organ systems, and enough blood vessels to circle the Earth twice! That’s quite a lot of anatomy you need to get your head around. Not to mention neuroanatomy, a topic that can open a Pandora’s box full of confusion and frustrations.

Learning, and more importantly retaining, a vast subject such as anatomy requires you to study smarter rather than harder. Stuffing your brain with information overnight will simply not cut it. You need to use some tried and tested, efficient, and productive strategies that maximize long term retention while minimizing time wasting. Many exist, but in this article we’ll provide you with five study techniques that Kenhub’s anatomy geeks believe can help you succeed: SQ3R reading method, note taking systems, memory palaces, ‘fill in the blanks’ tests, and spaced repetition.



How to study anatomy

The key to success doesn’t lie in memorizing anatomy tricks or magic potions explaining how to study anatomy for exams, only to forget everything after. It does, however, come in the form of testing. During the past decade, scientific studies have proven that active recall, a fancy term for test taking, is far superior for long term retention than passive learning. This holds true even when the test requires inferences or is in a completely different format compared to the original learning strategy. Also, the more you practice reviewing the material from memory, the easier it becomes for your brain to retrieve it because the neural connections to it are strengthened with each study session. Therefore, ditch passive learning techniques like re-reading, re-writing notes, or copying information verbatim from your textbook, and keep taking tests because practice makes perfect.


By 9dream studio/Shutterstock


Therefore, all five study techniques mentioned above force you to strain your brain and remember the information. The secret is to have patience, stick to them for a couple of months, and above all, no peeking! Resist the urge to continuously look up information you can’t remember, and only do that until the very end when you check your answers. In this way, you consolidate your memory, learn from your mistakes, and pinpoint problematic areas. It’s definitely safer to fail a practice test in the comfort of your home, rather than the actual anatomy exam, right?

1) SQ3R reading method

Firstly, learning begins with acquiring the information, a practice that commonly involves reading. How can you do it effectively? By adopting the SQ3R method, a useful and powerful reading strategy that consists of five steps:


  • Step 1: Survey - This involves previewing your desired chapter in your anatomy textbook, for five to ten minutes at most. Skim for anything eye-catching (headings, diagrams, tables, summaries, etc.) to build an overall organisation of the topic. Then, read it ‘in layers’ by focusing on the first and last sentences of each paragraph, and any other sentences containing at least one bold word.

  • Step 2: Question - As you preview, ask yourself as many questions as possible and become a curious five year old child. For example, transform each heading into a question, formulate questions you expect the text to answer, create future exam questions, etc. Questioning forces you to engage with the topic and focuses your reading because you are searching for specific answers.

  • Step 3: Read - You have familiarised yourself with the topic, so it’s time to acquire the information. Divide your topic into manageable parts and read a maximum of two pages continuously. Then stop, recite (step 4), and deeply process the information by fitting it into your web of knowledge and answering your preview questions. You can highlight, make outlines, or take notes as you go along, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

  • Step 4: Recite - This involves recalling, or testing, what you have just read. Close the book, start explaining the concepts in your own words, and then check yourself at the end. An interesting approach is to use the ‘2,1,0 method’. A score of ‘2’ means that you remembered most of the information, ‘1’ corresponds to an average (fifty-fifty) recall, and ‘0’ means that your attempt was terrible. Keep tracking your score during multiple passes to see how well you are mastering the concepts or if another approach is required.

  • Step 5: Review - This should be a continuous process in order to keep up with the subject and consolidate previously learned material. Several study techniques can help you, some of which will be discussed below. Examples include memory palaces, fill in the blank tests, and spaced repetition, but you can find a lot more learning strategies on the Kenhub website.


By  CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

2) Note taking methods

After reading, note taking is the second step involved in learning. Unfortunately, not a lot of health science students have mastered this skill. Many of them fall into some common pitfalls, such as writing excessively, not writing enough, or transcribing words verbatim, which ultimately hinder their learning. 


How can you overcome this? By writing notes with the book closed, writing them shorthand using abbreviations and incomplete sentences, and using specific note-taking methods. Keeping the book closed is extremely important because it avoids excessively long notes and verbatim transcription, while simultaneously forcing you to write them in your own words. It also creates a test, checking the accuracy of your newly acquired knowledge.


Note taking methods or systems are designed to help you take notes as easily and effectively as possible. There are many ways, such as mind maps, outlines, and charts, but the most versatile solution is provided by the Cornell note-taking system. The magic happens in the ‘Cue column’, where you can add questions, comments, memory triggers, and links about the notes written on the right hand side. In the bottom section, you can summarize the topic in your own words, which helps you understand it even more. Last but not least, by covering your notes and only reading the ‘Cue column’, you create a flashcard that tests your knowledge and which you can review frequently. Take advantage of this study multi toolbox and improve your anatomy learning through better note taking!  


By fizkes/Shutterstock

3) Memory palace

We’ve covered how to acquire information and put it on paper efficiently, but how can you transfer it into your brain? Anatomy is a vast subject so rote memorization will not cut it. A study technique that fits anatomy like a glove involves memory palaces, the one that Sherlock used to frequent during the TV series. If it doesn’t ring any bells, we’ll explain it right now. Essentially, a memory palace is a technique that makes us of imagery and associations to help you memorize and recall information instantly. Here’s how it works:


  • Let’s pick the celiac trunk as an example. To learn its branches, start by listing all of them, beginning with the left gastric artery.

  • Pick a very well known location to you, like your bedroom, and envisage it into your mind’s eye. Imagine walking through it slowly and picturing every object you come across in as much detail as possible.

  • Take each branch of the celiac trunk and transform it into an image. For example, imagine the left gastric artery as a large, green arrow that points to the left, having a face and a large gas mask on covering its nose and mouth. The more exaggerated or comical the images are, the easier your brain remembers them, so don’t hold back!

  • Now associate the created images with the objects in your well known location. Connect the first image on your list with the first object that you came across when you imagined your location. For example, if the object was your bedroom door, you can imagine the left pointing arrow with a gas mask to be placed on your door pointing at the door handle, showing you a way to get out of the toxic, green gas surrounding you, for example.

  • Repeat the process with the next branch and second object you came across in your room until the end of your list.

  • Keep revising by ‘travelling’ through your bedroom in your mind’s eye in the same direction that you learned the objects in, trying to recall the associated images and branches.



This might feel complicated at first, but with time and practice, your imagination will start conjuring images and associations in seconds. Also, this method is backed by science and has been used since ancient times, so it is definitely helpful! An in-depth discussion about memory palaces is presented in this article

4) Fill in the blanks tests

Learning topics only once and then forgetting about them is a recipe for disaster with a subject like anatomy due to its sheer volume of information. Constant reviews are essential for long-term cementation and retention. How can you do that? Re-reading your notes or textbook is certainly not the right answer because this involves passive learning. A better alternative is to use ‘fill in the blank’ tests.


One way to create them is to exploit your anatomy atlas and textbook to the maximum. You can simply hide the labels in your atlas with your hand and identify the structures from memory. Kenhub also provides labeling worksheets that you can simply download, print, and start identifying structures with. They cover everything from anatomical terminology to bones, muscles, nerves, organs, and systems, so they can be used throughout your entire anatomy course. 


Also, do you know the summaries at the end of chapters that are often overlooked by students? They are invaluable because they contain high yield information presented in a simple bullet point format, usually. Anatomy professors also love creating questions from summaries, so they are far from being a waste. You can create fill in the blank tests from them by photocopying a summary, using correction fluid (white-out or Tipp-Ex) to cover terms or important information, and then photocopying the corrected page again. You will end up with a page full of blank spaces that show no hints and which can be the ultimate revision tool. Give yourself a mark after completing each sheet and track your progress over time. A similar approach can be used for review tables outlining muscle attachments, so it’s a very versatile study technique.

5) Spaced repetition

Reviewing the material and testing yourself regularly is indeed beneficial, but it needs to be done in an efficient way. This is influenced by a lot of aspects, such as the information difficulty, the ease of understanding, the rate of forgetting, your daily availability, the constant pressure to keep learning new material taught in all of your courses, not only anatomy, and your personal life as well. Taking all of this into account when creating a schedule can be a daunting task.


Luckily, a study technique called spaced repetition can help you with both planning and revising. It is based on the ‘forgetting curve’, reminding you only what needs to be revised and only when it is required. In other words, right before you are about to forget it. Daily repetitions of the same material or topics that you already know are useless, so this method can save you a lot of time!


An excellent starting point would be Anki. This free flashcard learning tool has one of the most sophisticated spaced repetition algorithms on the market. As long as your flashcards are effective and follow the KISS principle (‘keep it simple stupid’), Anki will do the work for you.



Unfortunately, you need to manually create all flashcards, which can take a ton of time to complete. An alternative is provided by Kenhub’s quizzes! They are already prepared for you, come in various types, can be custom tailored to your specific learning needs, and also use spaced repetition! They can definitely save you a lot of time. Kenhub also offers over 1000 articles explaining various anatomy topics and structures, easy to digest videos narrated by anatomy experts, and a full colour atlas containing illustrations, cadaveric cross-sections, and radiological anatomy, too! All these features automatically adapt to your electronic devices, so you can seamlessly access the platform from your phone, tablet, or laptop. Kenhub has helped over one million users so far, so it can certainly help you as well. What are you waiting for? Go and try it out!



So, there you have it: five study techniques that can improve your anatomy learning based on the ultimate study principle of testing. The ‘SQ3R’ method can help you focus and obtain a lot more out of your reading sessions, while note taking systems help you to write your ideas on paper. Memory palaces boost your long term memory, and ‘fill in the blank’ tests together with spaced repetition help you review the material as efficiently as possible. We hope you will enjoy our suggestions and will incorporate them into your anatomy learning. Good luck with your studies!


By our friends at Kenhub!

Published: 30 Jun 2019