Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Get Your Head in the Game - 5 Tips for Success in Learning

If you have any awareness of sports—or any type of game—you've heard that the only path to success includes keeping your "head in the game."  In other words, you have to think about what you are doing (or about to do).  And you have to understand how you are thinking and make sure you are "thinking correctly"—that is, in a way that will let you perform at your best and get you closer to your goal.

This idea of "thinking about your thinking" is called metacognition (met-ah-kog-NISH-un).  And it works both in sports and in learning.  It is especially important and effective in learning a subject as overwhelming as human anatomy & physiology.

In other words, if you regularly step back from what you are doing and think about the strategies you are using (or forgetting to use) in your A&P course, you'll do better than if you just struggle along trying to "get it" all into your brain.

There's evidence that metacognition alone can improve your success in learning. That means that just the process of regularly thinking about how you are managing your learning—by itself—can make you more successful.  But that's probably because when you thus reflect on your own struggles in learning, you are more likely to tweak your strategies and watch for pitfalls in ways that make you a better student of A&P.

Some students do this kind of metacognition on their own because they've either learned it along the way, or they have a mindset that naturally tends toward metacognition.  But even if your mindset doesn't naturally think this way, it's okay—it's easily learned.

Following are some ways to get more "metacognitive" about your coursework—and thus get your "head in game."

  1. Schedule regular self-strategizing sessions. Set up a brief daily session (just a few minutes will do) and a weekly session. Put them in your calendar.  You have to have a calendar to be successful in college—even if you're not a "calendar person."  This way, you'll get in the habit of doing it regularly. 

  2. Review your progress. During your scheduled sessions, go over what you've accomplished. This is most effective if you keep notes or a journal on your progress. What kind—and how much—reading, studying, class work, and other strategies have you done since yesterday?  ...since last week? How am I performing?  I can expect to do poorly on self-quizzing activities at first, but am I getting better?  Are there concepts that are giving me particular trouble?  Am I going downhill fast? ...or am I holding my own?

  3. Get help.  If an athlete has trouble focusing their thinking in productive ways, their teammates and coaches can offer great advice.  So discuss this with students, your college learning center, and your professor. Use their advice to tweak your strategies. Then in future sessions, think about whether the new strategies have helped—or if you need to try something else.

  4. Have a positive attitude.  The worse thing you can do in metacognition is to focus on possible failure. Learn how to avoid learning and test anxiety. Evidence shows that you have to fail—forgetting what you've read, heard, or studied—before you can really learn it deeply and for the long term. So learn to value those aspects of your learning, knowing that it's a necessary step to success. After decades of helping A&P students succeed, I can tell you that returning learners, underprepared learners, English language learners, and students with all kinds of challenges can succeed in A&P if they maintain a positive, self-improvement attitude. 

  5. Try new things.  There's always a better way to do things. You've probably heard of successful athletes who have broken through some plateau they'd reached by learning a new technique or shifting their mindset in practice and/or performance.  For students, that means always being on the lookout for new ways to read a textbook, study, or take class notes. Or new ways to focus on learning and avoid anxiety.
This is just the start.  Once you make a habit of thinking about your learning, and gain specific skills in keeping your head in game, you can be more successful in all your courses—and in your career!

Explore the resources below for more tips.

Want to know more?

Photo (bottom): yalcin Eren

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Don't Ignore Those End-of-Chapter Questions in Your Textbook!

Recent research shows that practiced, spaced retrieval of information (from your memory) is the key to long-term, solid learning. The kind of learning you need as you progress through your next courses—and need an immediate recall of the facts and principles of anatomy and physiology.

Retrieval practice can take many forms, such as flash cards or asking each other questions in a study group.

Research shows that one of the most potent forms of retrieval practice is testing. The more you repeat the testing, the stronger the brain connections (synapses) involved in remembering that particular information get. Stronger synapses mean better recall and longer-lasting recall. In other words, repeated retrieval practice gets everything into your long-term memory, so you won't forget it by the time you get to the A&P exam—or when you need it all later in your clinical courses and career.

So when your professor tests or quizzes you, they do not just measure how much you know—they also strengthen your ability to "keep" all that knowledge for the long term.

One of the easiest ways to put retrieval practice into your study routine is to answer the chapter questions in your textbook. I know that unless the prof assigns them as graded homework, most students just skip those textbook questions. Too bad, because they are one of the best ways to learn!

Researchers who study learning have clearly shown that rereading your chapter over and over doesn't do a thing to reinforce your learning. Of course, you have to read the chapter at least once, but testing yourself on the material works way better than rereading the chapter—or your notes—again and again.

Instead of ignoring those review questions at the end of the chapter, write out the answers to them. Then check your answers, using the chapter content or the answer key (often located in an appendix or the online textbook resources). Don't check each one as you answer them because it works better if you just move on to something else first, then go back later for feedback on your answers.

The spacing of your retrieval practices is critical for effective learning, too. So do your self-testing for short stretches, but frequently. Every day is best if you can manage that.

Don't get discouraged if you don't do very well the first couple of times. That's expected. I realize it's more fun to see immediate progress. But when it's too easy, you're not learning for the long term. You want to struggle—even forget some of it a few times—so that your brain gets a good workout. No pain, no gain. Eventually, you'll get better.

With repeated practice, practice, practice of information retrieval by spaced testing, you'll be learning more deeply—and more permanently.

Photo (top): Judit Klein

Monday, November 30, 2015

9 Proven Tricks for Reducing Test Anxiety

Let's face it. We ALL experience test anxiety, right? Maybe not all the time; maybe not on every test. For a lot of us, it's always there—even when we are well prepared and it's just a little quiz that won't affect our course grade one way or the other.

As we all know, test anxiety really does affect our performance on a test. So it's important to develop skills to manage it and reduce it as much as possible. But how does one do that?

Below, I briefly outline some of the best ways I know of to reduce test anxiety. As you look through them, it's natural to think "this one probably won't work" or "that one is just plain silly" or "I'm not doing that!" But the the thing is, these have actually proven to be effective. Okay, maybe there are some that won't work for you—or won't have a big effect during every test—but you won't know that until you try them!
  1. Own up to your stress.

    The necessary first step in fixing anything is to recognize — and admit to — the problem. If you're reading this article, you've probably already done that. However, it is too easy to stop there. Many students blame their poor performance on test anxiety, but do not take any steps to reduce anxiety and improve performance. So the trick here is admitting to the test anxiety AND taking responsibility for personal improvement.

  2. Be prepared.

    This is probably the most effective trick in reducing test anxiety — but the least often practiced. There are several kinds of preparation for a test, all of which are critical to reducing anxiety and improving performance. The most obvious preparation is to study the concepts that will be tested. The other kind of preparation is a bit less obvious — you need to make sure that you have the skills needed to study effectively. Many college students have not learned effective study skills and thus their preparation for a test is inadequate. Putting some time and effort into learning how to study improves test preparation and reduces test anxiety.

  3. Don't cram.

    There are two kinds of cramming that can increase test anxiety.

    The first is putting off your study of the concepts to be tested until a day or two or three before a test. Even though you hear it all the time, NOBODY works better under pressure. So don't tell me that! You really need to study a little bit every day so that the day before the test, all you need is a light review. By trying to squeeze it all into a few days — or one very long night — you are increasing your stress levels tremendously. And that stress is going to carry over into the testing situation itself.

    The second kind of cramming is that fast and furious review of notes and flashcards while you are sitting in the hallway before you go into the test. Even if you have studied well and really know your stuff, this frantic one-more-time review can really ramp up your stress levels. One of the factors involved is when you do this with other students who are projecting their anxiety on to you. You may have arrived to the building with confidence, but that can all go out the window when surrounded by panicked classmates. So just stay away from them! What to do instead? Check out item 6 below.

  4. Don't forget to breathe.

    Okay, I know that you're not going to forget to breathe. What I mean by this is you you should try focusing on your breathing as if you might forget to breathe. A lot of research shows that you can reduce anxiety by putting everything out of your mind except a focus on your breathing. This is especially effective if you gradually slow your breathing to a very slow rate — maybe half your normal resting breathing rate — with long inspirations and even longer expirations. This works even better if you practice it every day — not just when you're getting ready to take a test. Check out 7 below.

    By the way, this breathing trick can also be very effective when you find your anxiety level increasing while you are taking a test. By taking just a moment to focus on your breathing and slow it down, you can reduce your anxiety. If you instead focus on your anxiety instead of your breathing, things will just get worse.

  5. Write your stress.

    It seems weird at first, but studies show that if you write out your stressful feelings right before you take a test, your test anxiety will be reduced — or even go away. Even if what you are writing is that you are way, way stressed out and that you hate the test and hate the material and hate the course and hate the professor and hate that you did not study, your anxiety will dissipate. At least a little bit, but often quite a lot. Try it — you may be surprised at how effective this is!

  6. Search out serenity.

    In trick 3 above, I mentioned that you shouldn't spend the minutes before a test cramming and feverishly reviewing your notes because that will ramp up your anxiety. So what should you do? One option is to induce relaxation with a breathing exercise, as described in 4 above. Another option is to write your stress, as described in 5 above.

    But there are other stress-relieving options. For example, leisurely stroll inside or outside the building before the test — trying to focus on what you see, rather than on the test or the course content. Is there an aquarium you can visit? Are there windows looking out onto a peaceful scene — or even just a parking lot where you can focus on the people and cars moving about? It's probably not a good idea to seek out digital serenity, however. Videos and social media and digital games are more likely to ramp up your anxiety than to get rid of it.

  7. Practice daily stress-reduction.

    In trick 4, I mentioned that slow breathing to relax is more effective if it is something that you have practiced regularly. There many other stress-reducing practices that you can do every day so that you are always starting from a less-anxious state. With many of these techniques, mastering them also allows you to take some control of your anxiety when it pops up in a stressful moment.

    What does it for me is tai chi. Others find that meditation, nature walks, yoga, fishing, and other relaxation strategies can have this effect. Besides helping you with your test anxiety, such a practice is a good life skill to develop ways of promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

  8. Takes lessons in managing stress.

    The one "trick" that does not work to reduce test anxiety is "just chill out." Managing stress is a skill — and like any skill, you need to learn it somewhere. Many colleges offer workshops and mini-courses in managing stress and reducing test anxiety. There may be other opportunities for such lessons in your community. Look around!

  9. Get professional advice.
    If your test anxiety is severe, this might be where you should start. Many colleges provide professional academic counseling that can help you learn to manage your test anxiety — or at least refer you to a professional who can provide you with specific help. Another option is to ask your physician for help or a referral. There are some professional counselors who specialize in test anxiety.

    Professional help can often have a dramatic effect in your life by helping you find the tools you need to reduce test anxiety and improve your academic performance.

Want to know more?

Scan test: David Hartman
Hand writing photo: Lavinia Marin
Tai Chi photo: Rayko Swensson

Friday, November 20, 2015

How the Ears Hear

When studying the rather complex structure and function of the ear and hearing, a picture is probably worth more than the usual exchange rate of a thousand words. But with this particular concept, I think a well designed, narrated animation can be worth a million words. Or perhaps it's just beyond words—making it priceless for learning. 

 Below is a great video that clearly explains the whole story of  auditory transduction—converting sound waves into hearing sensations in the ear.

 Before watching it, I recommend first reading the section of your textbook that covers ear anatomy and hearing, paying particular attention to the diagrams needed to understand the concept. That way, you'll get a lot more out of it!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Time Management is a Key to Success

The A&P course is one of the most rigorous courses you'll ever take—at least in terms of how much new information you'll be learning in a limited period of time.  It really cannot be done successfully unless you actively manage your time.

Simply going with the flow will NOT work for the A&P course!

It's easy to say to yourself, "I need to manage my time better!" but it's quite another to actually do it. Most of us just don't know the best practical techniques to make that happen.

Fortunately, the folks at the Dartmouth Academic Skill Center have put together a brief video that walks you through proven methods for time management in college. Strategies that I've used myself to manage my time to be more productive—and to avoid missing deadlines or falling behind.

And you'll learn that managing your time intentionally actually frees up more time for yourself!

Cartoon credit: dabnotu

Monday, March 2, 2015

Sleep Helps You Succeed

The results of a study by the National Sleep Foundation are just in—and they show that you need more sleep if you want to succeed in your A&P course.

A panel of experts analyzed all of the studies they could find that focus on recommended sleep durations and concluded that adults aged 18-64 should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night for good health.

Good health, for the purposes of the study includes performance, cognitive health, and executive function—all critical to success in your A&P course.

Yeah, I know, it's HARD to get a full night's sleep when you have to work, have family responsibilities, have too much on your plate, want to hang with your friends, have a roommate with insomnia, are too stressed, etc., etc.

However, there ARE ways to get around these issues and improve your sleep times.  Your physician or counselor can help you find sleep strategies that work for you.  This video from Dartmouth's Academic Skills Center may also be helpful to you.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Easter Eggs, Cheats, and the ESRB

I'm not up on the latest video game lingo.  I never got past Pong, which became popular when there weren't enough video games around to generate a whole new language.  But by listening carefully and asking a few questions, I've figured out these terms:

  • Easter egg - An extra little undocumentsed feature hidden away unobstrusively in a game
  • Cheat - This is a trick used to gain extra points or unlock extra powers or otherwise gain an advantage beyond just playing a game "straight"
  • ESRB - This is an organization that rates games for content (age-appropriateness, violence, etc.)

Two of my children are really into video games and when they talk to each other, I don't understand half of what they are saying because they're using all of this video-game lingo that I never picked up.

What does this have to do with your A&P course?  Terminology.  The language of A&P.

You are feeling overwhelmed with all the new terminology you have to learn, right?  And yet you've already mastered the specialized terminology of sports or video games or hobbies or SOMETHING in your life without too much pain—and without your head exploding.

So do the same things you always do to pick up the terminology of A&P:

  • Actively listen for new terms
  • Look at (and learn) new terms before you need them
  • If you run across a term that's unfamiliar, look it up—or Google it
  • Ask for help (your teacher, your classmates, your librarian)
  • Realize that it's going to take a few tries to pick up each new term
  • Don't ignore new terms—you might need it again, and soon

For specific tips on learning the terminology of A&P, check out

If you want some more specifics on the terminology of human science and medicine, check out my other blog o-log-y.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why You Should Write Out Your Notes

You have that great, expensive laptop to use for school.  You see other students taking notes in class, making concept lists, taking reading notes, and other learning tasks on their laptops—so why not do the same?

Here's the reason it's a good idea to skip the laptop and write out your notes:

You learn better when you write it out.  

Our brains just work that way.  If we slow down to write things out, it's easier for all that information to be fully processed by our brains—and makes it more likely that we'll remember it.

Besides that, by using the part of our brains that functions in the act of writing words and drawing sketches, we not only process the information in another way—we have another place in our brain to reinforce and remember the information for the long term.

Sure, if things are going too fast for you to keep up, it's a struggle.  But your brain works to sort out the essential information and how to condense it.  That helps you learn it even better!  If you do write out your notes, you'll struggle less in the long run.

This a great strategy for learning the overwhelming amount of new information you encounter in your A&P course, eh?

Want to know more?

Strategy: Here's Why Writing Things Out By Hand Makes You Smarter

  • D. Baer  Business Insider  DEC. 16, 2014, 10:56 AM
  • A brief article summarizing why this technique works.
  • my-ap.us/15TWn6i

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

  • P. Mueller & D. Oppenheimer Psychological Science January 16, 2014
  • Abstract of a recent research report summarizing experimental results.
  • my-ap.us/15PGwVt

Here are some related posts from The A&P Student

Image: Wellcome Trust - William Harvey's lecture notes

Monday, February 9, 2015

How Much of This Is Going to Be on The Test?

You are not the first A&P student to run into this issue!

That’s always a problem—especially near the beginning of A&P 1—figuring out what’s important to study for the test and what’s not.  Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

First, every teacher is different.  So I could give you some precise guidance if I was teaching your class, but not so much for another teacher’s class. So really, your only option for really focused help in figuring out what'll be on your test is to go have a chat with your professor.

I'll never forget the first time I went to chat with a professor about this back in the olden days when I was a student.  It was after our first test, when it became clear to me that I'd missed the mark in my studying. Our professor was very serious in class—not the sort I would think wanting students bothering him outside of class. But after class, my buddy said "let's go" and led me down the hall.  I thought we were meeting up with another friend or something. But my buddy just walked right into our professor's open office door and asked, "can you help us figure out how to study for your tests?" I don't think I'd ever have visited a professor's office on my own.

You know what happened?  He gave us a huge smile, offered us each a chair, and chatted with us for almost an hour.  And wow, did we learn a lot about what to expect on his tests—as well as some general study tips that I still use to this day.  I think most students hesitate to take this step.

Your professor is the one making up the test, after all.  So bring your notes and your other course materials with you and ask for some pointers.

Before doing that, I would look carefully at the course syllabus.  Often, there are hints (or outright guidance) on what’s important.  One hint would be any course objectives or learning outcomes.  If the instructor put them there, then this is what they want you to know.  The problem is that often they are very general, but at least it gives you a start.  If the syllabus tells you to do specific things to prepare, like answer questions in the book at the end of the chapter, then the teacher expects you to know that particular information.

Then, think about what the professor presents in class, online, and in discussions. Most instructors often say something like, “when you get this on the test, be sure you know it” or some other hint like that.  I tell my students to put a star in their notes EVERY TIME I say something like that.  Because we teachers don’t say that unless we KNOW it’s going to be an item on the test.

If it's too late for that in studying for your upcoming test, you can still go back over your notes and perhaps jog your memory about whether they said anything like that.

I always tell students to ask if there are copies of old tests you can look at.  Sometimes instructors will let you see them, sometimes they won’t.  But you won’t have a chance if you don’t ask.  Looking at old tests helps you figure out an instructor’s approach to testing—a huge step toward preparing for their tests.  The good news is that the more of that professor's tests that you take, the better you will get at taking them.  The bad news is that you may not have really had that chance yet.

Another tip is to form a study group.  Talking things out among several students often helps each of you focus your learning.  Be sure to meet with your study group just AFTER the test, too.  Then, y’all can talk out what happened on the test and look for things that will help you in future tests.  For example, “wow, she tested only on what was on the slides” or “wow, she tested on some things that were not on the slides” or whatever.  That’ll help you prepare for the next test.  Study groups have been shown to be the BEST way to prepare for a test.

Lastly, I’ll tell you that my experience talking to students in A&P classes that come to me wanting to know how to focus their study for a test is that I often give them some specific advice that I didn’t have time to talk about in class.  Sometimes even saying things like, “no, that topic won’t even be on the test” or “there will definitely be a matching section on that concept” or “I’ll ask you to identify the functions of ALL the organelles.”   Make sure you write all that down while you chat.  Or at least do that out in the hall just after leaving your professor's office, so you don’t forget.

So, in a nutshell, talking to your teacher about your next test is the best strategy.

Click here for more tips on taking A&P tests.

Top photo: Creative Ignition
Bottom photo: Tbuckley89

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cells of the Immune System

Cells of the Immune System interactive

Confused by T cells and B cells?

Need help from "helper" cells?

Having bad dreams about natural killer cells?

Do you have an innate fear of immunology?

Then use this FREE interactive overview to help you sort out the "big ideas" of human immunity.

Get your B's and T's straightened out!

Learn how to properly serve up an antigen for supper!

Click here to start! And don't forget to click on the embedded videos—they are very helpful!

To get the maximum benefit from this "click and learn" activity, then fill out this worksheet to solidify your learning.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Heart Song

I've always thought that silly songs are great mnemonic devices in the human sciences.  I've seen them work from kindergarten (remember the ABC song?) and up through medical school (even in pharmacology).

If you find them "catchy" then you'll find yourself repeating them in your head.  Or maybe even out loud.  And that's the kind of thing that helps your brain form long-term memories!

One I recently ran across is in a music video original produced to help 6th-graders learn about the heart.  But it may help you as you begin your study of the heart in A&P!

Watch it here.

Another one is a classic favorite: Pump Your Blood

Want more silly songs?  Check these out!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Blood Types

Learning about blood types can be a bit confusing at first.

But the concept of blood types is important for several reasons:

  • Blood typing is used frequently in clinical medicine because the use of blood transfusions is common, and therefore so is blood banking and related activities.

  • Knowing one's own blood type is important for future medical procedures—perhaps even a life-threatening emergency.

  • Concepts of blood typing carry over into other types of tissue typing—a concept useful in transplant medicine.

  • Blood typing is a great introduction to basic concepts of immunology (something you'll be coming to soon in your A&P course) like antigens, antibodies, agglutination reactions, self vs. nonself, and more.

  • It's just one of those things you have to learn in A&P.  Trust us, we know this will be useful to you later on—even if you don't think so now.

Here's a great video that lays out the essential concepts very briefly—in an easy-to-understand way. Sometimes, an explanation that's a bit different than that in your textbook or class discussion helps a new concept "click" in your brain.

Watch the brief video What are Blood Types:

One brief note: the video states that antigens are proteins.  That's often true.  But in blood typing, the A and B antigens are actually sugars.  The Rh antigens are proteins.  Not a big deal—they were trying to keep it simple for you.

Here's a copy of the chart of ABO blood types used in the video.  You may want to copy-and-paste it into your class notes to supplement your learning resources.

Click on the image for other sizes.

Here's a chart showing donor-recipient compatibility for the ABO-Rh combined typing system.

Click on the image for other sizes.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Five Things You Should Do Between A&P 1 and A&P 2

Ah, there's a break between semesters!  You've survived A&P 1 and have temporarily put it—along with everything else related to school—out of your mind.  You even wonder to yourself, "why am I reading THIS?  School is out!"

The answer to that question is, "because somewhere deep inside, I realize that A&P 2 is looming in the near future for me."

Here are five tips for being ready for A&P 2:

  1. Relax and refresh.  It's a break, after all!  Academic calendars purposely have breaks in them to allow you to "take a breather" and get your head out of  your books for a while.  Sort of like dreaming, it gives your brain time to assimilate what you've learned and get ready for the next round.  If you don't take some time for yourself to relax and refresh yourself, A&P 2 won't be so easy for you.

  2. Attend to "real" life.  A&P 1 was more rigorous and time-consuming than you thought it was going to be.  You found yourself putting friends and family "on hold" while you focused on keeping your head above water.  Now's a good time to reconnect.  And explain why you've had to be so focused.  It might also be a good time to make sure they're all on board for another semester or two of not seeing you so much—making them true partners in this "training phase" of your life.

  3. Review what you've accomplished. Take a small amount of time to review what you learned in A&P 1—which was an awful lot!  As I mentioned in #1, this is the time your brain is consolidating all those concepts into something useful.  Something you can take forward with you into later courses—and into your career.  So help your brain along a bit by taking a few minutes each day to skim over a chapter's worth of notes, the illustrations from the book, the chapter summary.  This simple trick can have a huge impact on how much gets into—and stays in—your long-term memory.

  4. Plan your strategy.  Besides the concepts you learned last term, you also learned—perhaps the hard way—that you can't succeed in A&P without a plan.  Now, when the pressure's off, is a great time to figure out how you are going to schedule your life next term.  Actually put it into your Google calendar (or on your whiteboard) now. Then, when your new course starts, you'll have it all mapped out.  This trick gets you in the right frame of mind to start a new semester in a low-stress way!

  5. Preview your next course.  You already have the textbook right?  You know what's coming in A&P 2.  Take just a few minutes each day to skim through the summary material of a chapter in the second half of your book.  I suggest that you start with the new words.  Read them out loud, so your brain is prepared for them next term (this is the best way to learn any new language).  Say the trickier ones—like carbaminohemoglobin—several times, to get the rhythm of the word in your head.  Then skim over a brief or detailed chapter outline.  Then, if you have time and haven't zoned out yet, look over the chapter illustrations.  This trick will give you the "lay of the land" of A&P 2—further reducing stress going forward.
Photo: Ryan Mahle

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ten Exam Strategies for A&P

exam answer sheet
It's close to exam time for many A&P students and you may be a bit anxious about that A&P final, eh?

Here are ten tips for preparing for exams and taking exams that have proven useful for many other A&P students.

  1. Determine what will be on the exam.  Your syllabus or other course resources usually map that out for you,  If not, chat with your instructor.  Ask about the format of the exam: will the questions be of similar style, range, and depth of prior tests?  How many items?  Has your instructor given you any hints about what to expect?

  2. Practice the exam. Use previous tests from the course (if available) to practice the exam. One way to do this is to cut up copies of your tests and draw individual items randomly from an envelope. Sometimes professors will provide a practice exam or copies of some old exams. If not offered, it wouldn't hurt to ask.  Go to my-ap.us/1rJxClB for more.

  3. Study with a group. Pooling your thoughts, and helping each other review and practice, work surprisingly well to solidify what you already know and to fill in any gaps. Go to my-ap.us/WIYzcd to find out how to find others for group study.

  4. Manage your time well. Don't cram at the last minute . . . do a little preparation each day for a week or more before the exam. Go to my-ap.us/rgNZ27 for more tips.

  5. Be healthy. Do NOT stay up nights studying . . . sleep deprivation will reduce your ability to perform well. Eat well in the days leading up to the exam. Try to reduce stress.  Exercise (it'll help you think more clearly).  Check out my-ap.us/1CD0x0z and my-ap.us/dIdsS9 and my-ap.us/XdoVes

  6. Get to the test in time. Duh-uh, of course you should be there in time. But for the exam, try to get there early. I've seen SO many students cut it close, then something comes up (bad traffic, for example) and they come in LATE. Not only does that cut down the time you have to take the exam . . . you'll be flustered and unable to think clearly.

  7. Skim over the exam before taking it. This will give you an idea of what's ahead and you can use your time wisely.

  8. Don't waste time on something you really don't know. Do all the parts you are confident about. Then use the remaining time to work on the real puzzlers. If you start with the puzzling parts, you won't have time for the parts you know well . . . and you might get flustered and bomb the whole thing.

  9. Double check your responses. Make sure you read the question accurately (a common mistake). Makes sure things are spelled correctly. If you use a scan sheet, make sure you answered on the correct line. If there are complex problems, and you have time, do them AGAIN--just to make sure you got the right answer.

  10. Don't skip anything. Well, if you absolutely run out of time, you have no choice. But if time gets away from you and realize that you have only a few minutes for the remaining items that you'd prefer to take more time with . . . then just "go with your gut" and fill in some fast answers. You'd be surprised how many may turn out to be right (especially if you've prepared yourself well).
Check out this video, too!

There are even more tips at:

Some content has been adapted from prior posts.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Three-dimensional Brain

Having trouble figuring out the shapes and locations of the various parts of the human brain?

Well, join the club!  Even experienced neuroscientists sometimes have to take a moment to wrap their brain around the structures of the brain.

Here's a great tool for helping you see what's what in the brain:

The 3-D Brain from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Besides being a fun way to "dissect" the brain and highlight specific structures, this interactive visualizer also helps you learn and review the names of structures and regions of the brain.

I recommend you add a bookmark for the 3-D Brain to your growing library of A&P resources.  This is one that you'll be using many times, even after you've finished your A&P course.

Thanks to Veneliza Salcedo for this tip!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Your A&P Bookmark Library

As you find tools for learning anatomy and physiology on the internet, be sure to save them for future use!

If you "favorite" or bookmark the URLs of animations, videos, interactives, references, and other resources, then you'll always be able to find them again.

Not just find them tomorrow or next week, but also find those great helps in your next course when you have either review your A&P or delve deeper into it.  And even later, when you are out there working in your profession and have to review or upgrade your knowledge.

When you bookmark your A&P resources, you don't want to just pile them all into the same folder.  You want to create a master "A&P" folder and then put folders for each topic into that master folder.  I suggest using the chapter topics of your A&P textbook as names for your folders.

If you keep your A&P bookmark library organized in folders or subgroups, then you'll find it easy to go back and find any particular URL that need.

As your library of bookmarks grows, then consider subdividing your existing folders or subgroups even further—making easier to navigate to the exact resource that you need.

There are many different ways to bookmark URLs, but the simplest is to use the bookmarking feature of your favorite browser.  Be sure to back up your set of bookmarks, though, so you don't lose all those valuable bits of information!

Here are some bookmarks you'll want to make sure are in your bookmark library:

The A&P Student 


Lion Den—Study Tips & Tools

Kevin's YouTube channel

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Having trouble learning all those facts about the many bones and muscles of the body?

I recently ran across a great set of resources that help you quickly learn the bones and muscles of the body.  A group called Humanatomy, led by teacher Paula Jaspar, has a YouTube channel loaded with short video clips that quickly help you through the parts of the human body's framework.

And they are putting the finishing touches on an iPad game that helps you learn anatomy in a really fun, multisensory way.  You can get the Humanatomy app when it's ready in a few weeks if you contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

Learning experts tell us that we learn more efficiently (faster and deeper) if you use multiple senses, if you practice in many short spurts, and if you make a game of it.  The Humanatomy approach incorporates all of these ideas in their resources!

To check out their library of FREE videos go to The Humanatomy Channel on YouTube.

To check out their fun app for learning anatomy, go to the Humanatomy Kickstarter page.

You can learn even more by following the Humanatomy blog, where you can also sign up for their free newsletter with learning tips and follow them on Twitter.

Here are a couple of their videos to get you started:

Bones: Elbow Complex

Muscles: Sternocleidomastoid Muscle

Monday, September 15, 2014

Learning Tissues Bird by Bird

What?!  Bird by bird?

Yep—that's the best way to begin learning how to distinguish the various tissue types of the body.

The bird-by-bird approach to learning anatomy is based on two major concepts, described here.

Chunk the List

The first was described by author Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'"
Wow—doesn't that sound just like the feeling you have when you are given a list of human tissues to learn in your A&P course?  With crazy names like nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium, specimens that look like the abstract art exhibit at the art museum, and an insanely short time frame to master them all, of course it feels overwhelming.

Really, that's the best way to tackle the tissues.  Just get started!  And take them one by one, rather than thinking about the whole long list of them facing you.  You'll find that by chunking the list this way, it's not so paralyzing.  It sounds overly simple—perhaps even a bit silly—but it really works!

Focus on Unique Characteristics

A while back, I wrote a post called Trouble with Tissues? in which I briefly described a method for learning tissues based on how birders learn how to tell one bird from another when out birdwatching:

The introduction to my Field Guide to the Body at the Lion Den website compares studying tissues to what birders do when they identify wildlife in the field. Take a look at that brief analogy, including examples of how to apply it to histology, for helpful tips on making this topic easier. If you're using any of my lab manuals in your A&P course, you can apply this technique directly by looking at the Landmark Characteristics boxes scattered throughout the tissue exercises.

To summarize this method, you simply look at what makes each tissue different from other tissues just as you would when learning the many different types of sparrows live in the state park:

  • Field marks—physical characteristics that distinguish one type from another.  All sparrows are LBJs (little brown jobs), but each species has a unique characteristic such as a beak color or streak on the cheek that sets it apart from the others.  Likewise, each tissue type has one or more physical characteristics—such as cell shape or fiber type or cell arrangement—that make it stand out from all other similar tissues.

  • Range—if I look out my window and see a penguin, I know I need my eyes examined.  Because I live in Missouri, where penguins live in only in zoos.  So I can identify birds in part by which birds live in or visit my region.  Bird guides list ranges for this reason—to help you figure out which bird the one in your yard could be.  If you learn the locations of tissues, that helps you figure out where to look for them.  For example, look for most epithelial tissues on surfaces, look for cardiac muscle in the heart.  If you are looking at a tissue sample from the arm, then don't expect that muscle tissue to be cardiac muscle—it's instead likely to be skeletal muscle tissue,

  • Habitat—Besides knowing which region a bird is likely to be found, it also helps to know what kind of habitat it prefers.  Look for forest birds in the forest and look for shore birds, well, along the shore.  With tissues, if you know that if you are looking for irregular fibrous tissue, look under epithelium—there's always some there.

  • Behavior—Behavior is function.  When identifying birds, it helps to know how they fly (do they soar like vultures or hover like hummingbirds?).  When identifying tissues, it helps to know their functions.  If you know that fibrous connective tissues are often supportive in function, that will help you find them.  If you know that smooth muscle tissue compresses the hollow part of hollow organs, you know where to find them—within the walls of hollow organs such as digestive organs.

Not Just for Tissues

This method also works well for learning bones and bone features, muscles of the body, nerves, digestive organs, and more—any of the "birds" of the body!

Want to know more?

Trouble with Tissues?

  • Kevin Patton.  The A&P Student. 28 September 2010.
  • Outlines tips for studying tissues in the A&P course.
  • my-ap.us/14OoEVR

Field Guide to the Human Body

  • Kevin Patton. Lion Den. Accessed 7 September 2014.
  • From my study tips website, this page introduces the "birding" analogy to studying human structures.
  • my-ap.us/1AokMsw

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

  • Anne Lamott. Anchor. First published 1 January 1994.
  • Great book.  Great author. That is all.
  • my-ap.us/Yon5jT

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology

  • Kevin Patton. Elsevier. Oct 18, 2013.
  • Tips and techniques for studying A&P, including tissues, mentions the birding analogy.
  • my-ap.us/16aa5zg

Monday, September 8, 2014

Echocardiogram Visualizes Heart Function

One of the best ways to learn about the heart is to watch it work.  But how can you do that, considering that if you open up the thoracic cavity, then slice open the heart, you'd break it?

But biomedical science has shown us another way to see the parts of the heart and how they work.  It's called echocardiography.

It's a technique that uses the same technology as the sonograms you've seen of fetuses inside their mother's belly.  Basically, it bounces sound waves through the body and makes an image of whatever bounces back (an echo). But echocardiography is adapted specifically to the heart and its function.

Want to see echocardiography in action and better visualize heart function? Try watching this video.

Video source: my-ap.us/WnyEXi

Image credit: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

Monday, September 1, 2014

DNA Replication in 3D Motion

When trying to get a grasp DNA replication—the copying of DNA prior to cell division—it often helps to see what's going.

The static diagrams accompanied by written narrative of the story in most textbooks are good places to start figuring out DNA replication—but it really helps if you can watch it all unfold in 3-dimensional motion.

I've found a video that really helps you understand the process.

A bit of advice before you watch it:
  1. You ought to read through the DNA replication story in your textbook and look at the diagrams there.  If you watch this cold, it may not help you as much.
  2. The details of how the DNA-replicating enzymes work and what they look like is not the important part of the story.  The important part is just seeing how it all works as a biochemical "machine."
  3. I recommend watching the video more than once.  You'll "get it" better that way, because it goes at a pretty fast clip.
  4. Eating popcorn while watching this movie is totally up to you!

Video source: my-ap.us/1ra0MZ2

Image credit: madprime

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Getting a Good Start in your Anatomy & Physiology Course

For those entering the health professions, the human anatomy and physiology course is the arguably the most important—and most difficult—step in their schooling.

To get a good, solid start in A&P, I've pulled together some advice to share with you—things you need to know as you start, so you won't get into trouble you can't get yourself out of.

Learn how to read and raid your textbook

  • You can't just sit down and read an A&P textbook. It's not meant to be read like a novel or magazine. There are steps you need to take to really comprehend the contents, and if you don't take those steps, then you'll be wasting your time.
  • You also need to learn how to raid your A&P textbook.  That means knowing how and where to find information in your book when you need it to solve a problem or clarify something from your class discussion or lab activity.
  • You need to actually use your book.  Many students just set it aside (it looks so big and scary, after all) and never use it to supplement and complement what's going on in other parts of the course.  They often exclaim, "why did I have to buy that thing, when I didn't even use it!"  Yet, by not using it on their own, they are making it much more difficult—and time-consuming—to succeed in their A&P course.  
  • To learn more about how to read and raid your textbook, check out Read and Raid Your Textbook.

Brush up on your study skills

  • Prior to their A&P course, I've found that many students have been successful (or not so successful) in their high-school and college courses by just "winging it." Or by simply taking a few notes in class and reviewing them before a test or exam.  That won't cut it in A&P—no matter how brilliant you are.
  • You need to employ a set of study strategies to be successful.  I've listed just a few of them here, so you have an idea of what I'm saying.  Click on any of the links to find out more.
    • You'll be learning a new language, the language of science and medicine, so learn some basic principles of how that language works.
    • Use flash cards to help you learn new terms right away.  This is a first step before you can master the deep meaning of science concepts.
    • Use concept maps to sketch out the new sets of facts, theories, and principles that you are learning.  By drawing it out, you learn what aspects you've already mastered—and you reveal your weak spots and get them corrected.
    • Use concept lists to help you see connections between concepts you've learned and build a framework for seeing the "big picture" of human structure and function.
    • Manage your time by scheduling several short study sessions every single day. Cramming at the end does not work—and certainly won't prepare you for your later courses, nor your career, both of which rely on a deep understanding of A&P.
    • Study in a group.  Regularly.  Research shows that this is one of the most efficient (time-saving) and effective ways to study pretty much any subject.
    • Take good notes.  If your course involves lectures or online presentations, then take notes.  In lab, take notes.  Reading or raiding your textbook?  Take notes.  Take notes. Take notes.
    • Practice. Practice. Practice.
  • Spend a little time and effort learning effective study strategies. Here are some ways to get started:

Take A&P seriously

An awful lot of students look at the A&P course simply as a hoop that needs to be jumped through—a credential to get down on paper—before getting a degree or certificate needed to start a career.  A more realistic view sees the A&P course as a "first year on the job" experience.  Where you learn most of what you'll need to survive the first day, the next day, and the last day working in your health career.

So, how does one get serious about A&P?  Here are a few tips, with links to more information.
  • Develop habits of professional ethics by acting with academic integrity.
  • Realize that you've really got to learn it all, and learn it correctly.  And yes, spelling is important.
  • Exhibit professional responsibility by working regularly, attending class activities, and  honoring deadlines
  • Get others in your life on board with your plan.  A&P—then your later courses and clinical experiences—are going to temporarily take you away from some of the other responsibilities in your life.  If your friends and family don't realize what you need from them, it'll cause a lot of problems.  So have that discussion now and clarify things.  Need help?  Check out Help Significant Others Help You.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Powers of Ten

In A&P, many students have hard time wrapping their heads around the size of things.

For example, how many of us really have a good grasp of how small a cell really is, or a protein molecule within a cell, or an atom within the protein?  Or the relative size of tissues compared to individual cells—or compared to an organ?

And we are continually "zooming our focus" in and out among levels of organization—atoms and ions, molecules and crystals, organelles, cells, tissues, and organs.

Add to that the fact that the units of measurement used to describe the size of things are in the metric system (SI), which is based on powers of ten. That is, we use a measuring system based on units that very by a factor of ten—units are multiplied or divided by ten, then another ten, then by ten again.

Add to that the frequency of discussion of pH units, which on the surface seem to go up or down by single units—but in reality a change from one pH unit to the next is a change in hydrogen ion concentration by a factor of ten.

This nifty little video can help us wrap our heads around the concept of powers of ten.  It may help us in navigating the world of the human body. Click here to see the helpful material that accompanies the video.


DNA image credit: 3Dscience

Friday, June 13, 2014

Is spelling important?

In A&P, correct spelling could be a life-or-death issue.  Really.

The topic of correct spelling—and the consequences of incorrectly spelled terms—was brought to mind a while back with the news story about a student on the TV game show Jeopardy! whose answer was disqualified because it was misspelled. A lot of folks were angry, as though the boy was cheated, but the producers calmly pointed out that it’s not an acceptable answer if it’s not spelled correctly.

Just like Scrabble or Words with FriendsJeopardy! is a game with rules, after all.

But the A&P course is not “just a game.”  It is the foundation for many health professions.  Professions where misspellings can be the basis for life-threatening medical errors.

Most A&P professors serve humanity by enforcing accuracy in our courses—including correct spelling of scientific and medical terms.

Here’s what I tell my own students:
“That's part of learning how to communicate accurately and professionally. For those of you going into patient care or managing patient records, accuracy can affect a person's life . . . so it's best to learn that lesson here and now—where no one's life is in danger.”
There really IS a difference between perineum  (area between the genitals and the anus) and peritoneum (membrane covering your intestines and lining the abdomen).  Just two letters, and the whole meaning of a sentence or paragraph—or medical record—is changed. It may still make sense when you read it, even in context, but it is now wrong.  Perhaps deadly wrong.

Some A&P students counter that current software platforms used in hospitals and clinics have safety features that autocorrect or call attention to potential errors.  That’s true—to some extent.  But just like the autocorrect features found in word processing software, they cannot be relied upon entirely. We really must know which term is which by its correct spelling.

Now’s a good time to think about how how serious you are in preparing for your profession.  I want my healthcare providers to get it right.  You should, too!

Adapted from an earlier article at The A&P Professor

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why deadlines are important

In every class, there are students who believe it’s just fine to miss the deadline of an assignment and give an excuse (often a lame excuse) and expect it to be “okay” to submit the assignment late.

I’m here to tell you that it is NOT okay!

Here are some of the reasons that you should NEVER miss a deadline:

1. Missing deadlines is not professional behavior. You are on an academic path preparing you for a profession. Which means that you need to develop professional behavior now. Because it's not something you can simply "turn on" after you are in school and start your first day on the job in your profession.

2. You don't want to develop bad habits. Research shows that the more you engage in a behavior, the more likely that behavior will become ingrained as a habit. And we all know how hard habits are to break, eh? Is that the kind of student, or the kind of professional person, you want to become? Always late?

3. One thing often leads to another. Missing deadlines can have a "domino effect" by leading to other problems for you. For example, if you are missing an assignment, then you may not have the knowledge or expertise you need for the next assignment. So now the next assignment will be late. And you'll be unprepared for the test. Before long, your ability to succeed may really start to fall apart!

4. Meeting deadlines is respectful to your peers and your teacher. Teachers often have limited time for grading and other course management tasks. If you are late, then they have find additional time when you finally get around to getting your work done to grade that work. That's not respectful of the teacher's time. Do you really want to be a disrespectful student? It's also discourteous to your peers because the teacher may have to hold off grading their work, or at least hold off releasing the grades or graded work.

5. You don't want the grumpy grading grinch evaluating your work. Having to take extra time and effort to grade work that was not submitted on time (for no good reason) makes even the most patient person frustrated. Do you really want a grumpy teacher evaluating your work and assigning a grade? Nah, me either.

6. You want to avoid bad things. Sometimes, really bad things. Of course, you could lose some or all of the grade points on a late assignment. But it could also lead to a bad (perhaps failing) grade in the course, especially if it becomes a habit (see #2) or leads to missing knowledge (#3). But remember #1 above? Missing deadlines in your profession could lead to disciplinary action, including firing. Perhaps even a loss of your professional license! In health care professions, missing some deadlines could constitute criminal negligence that could seriously harm patients (and lead to jail time).

Okay, life happens and true emergencies occur. We all know that. So if you must miss a deadline, or even think you might miss a deadline, here are my suggestions:

1. Exhaust all other options. Missing a deadline should be your last resort. Can you get someone else to shoulder that interfering responsibility so you can make the deadline? Can you skip or postpone that other thing? Can you hitch a ride or hire a cab to get you there? Remember, this course is the foundation for everything else and you don't want to mess it up!

2. Talk to your teacher. Acknowledge the importance of the deadline. Be respectful in your approach by being clear that you really do understand the burden your situation brings to others. Also be clear that you take your academic success seriously. Do not demand anything. Present your situation and ask for your teacher's advice. You may be surprised by a solution you hadn't thought of. The teacher may even offer to extend the deadline.

3. Talk to your teacher. Really. Never, ever, ever, let a deadline go by without contacting your teacher. Failing to contact your teacher ahead of time, unless it is absolutely impossible, sends the message that you are blowing off the deadline. Availability of communication media these days means that there really are very few situations where a brief message cannot be gotten to your teacher.

4. Talk to your teacher. I mean it this time! For serious issues that impact your ability to engage fully in your course, bringing your teacher into the loop is the best thing. We have experience helping students and can often find ways to help you overcome your obstacles. At the very least, involving the teacher can make it clear that your missed deadlines are truly unavoidable.

5. Document your case. Even if it's not required, documentation will help clarify your position. Many, many students just make stuff up. Avoid that assumption by proving up front that you're not making up your situation. Be sure to follow up any verbal conversations with your teacher with a written confirmation of the conversation. For example, if you chat with your teacher and they extend your deadline, then follow up with an email to the teacher confirming the extended deadline. That way, it's in writing and in case your teacher forgets, you can remind them about the confirmation you sent. It also gives you both a chance to clear up any mistakes in communication that may have occurred, such as getting the new deadline date wrong.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Learning bones & skeletal features

Wow, not only must I learn all the bones of the skeleton, but also a humongous list of bone features?!

Beginning the study of the skeleton can be intimidating, for a number of reasons.  Not the least of which is that the names of the bones and bone features seem to be very odd—sometimes almost unpronounceable.

There's a reason the names are so odd.  They're based on a foreign language!  They're all based on Latin, with a lot of Greek word parts mixed in there. Once you realize that you're learning a new language along with learning new structures, the task ahead will be clearer to you.  And hopefully, a  bit less intimidating.

It turns out that if you actually focus on the fact that these are terms from a foreign language and try to translate them, then learning skeletal anatomy is far easier—and takes far less time and effort—than if you ignore the meanings of bone names.

To help you get started on this road, I've produced a couple of very brief videos that outline a proven method to quickly and easily learn your entire assigned list of bones and bone features.  Watch them both to get the greatest benefit.

In the videos, I mention a couple of lists of translations (and pronunciations) that will help you engage the method I'm recommending.  Links to those lists are found below.

Want to know more?

List of bone marking types
  • Translation of each term
  • Pronunciation of each term
  • Brief description of each term
  • my-ap.us/16PNh3K

List of bones and bone markings of the human skeleton
  • Translation of each term
  • Pronunciation of each term
  • Use with your textbook or Survival Guide for A&P (below), which has a description of each structure
  • my-ap.us/15zZYom

Field Guide to the Human Body:  Bone Names

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology
  • Many time-saving, effort-saving, and frustration-saving tips and shortcuts
  • my-ap.us/16aa5zg

Learning A&P Terminology
  • Brief introduction to the scientific terminology used in A&P
  • You might want to look at this FIRST if you haven't seen it yet
  • Includes short, helpful videos
  • my-ap.us/14PncUV

More Tips on Learning the Human Skeleton
  • Additional blog posts (including this one) focusing on bones
  • my-ap.us/JJEEMF