Human anatomy: advice on studying for practical exams

December 10, 2021

Here’s another “blogging this so I can stop retyping it in emails to students” post. 

Relevant to all anatomy practical exams:

  • Every time you approach a cadaver/station, get your orientation down first. Muscles, nerves, and vessels are always on their way from one place to another, and knowing the orientations of those individual structures is critical, but useless if you don’t take the time to grasp the overall orientation of the body, or body region.
  • Related to the above: draw. Draw, draw, draw. Not only to help fix structures in your head, but (probably even more critically) to get orientations down. For example, in the infratemporal fossa the maxillary artery is going from posterior and inferior to anterior and superior, whereas the big branches of the mandibular division of the trigeminal nerve (V3) are mostly angled from posterior and superior to anterior and inferior. One nice thing: the drawings don’t have to be good; even stick figures are useful, and for learning orientations simple diagrams are arguably even better than complex ones.
  • Think about possible distractors regionally as well as systemically. Here’s what I mean: when people miss items on practical exams, often it is not because they confused one nerve for another nerve (systemic thinking), but because they confused a nerve for an artery, or a muscle for a gland, or a tendon for a duct, that happened to be in the same area (regional thinking). Whatever structure you are focused on learning, be aware of all the other structures in the same area, regardless of whether they look like plausible distractors or not — in the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to pick something in the same region, even if it’s not the same type of structure (artery, vein, nerve, muscle, gland, duct, etc.). It may sound unlikely in the cold light of day — how does one confuse a gland and a muscle? — but the pressure of an anatomy practical has strange effects on the human brain (MJW, pers. obs.).

Relevant to head and neck anatomy specifically:

  • Think about all the places that the various cranial nerves are visible. Make a table cross-referencing all the dissections and all the cranial nerves, so you can see which cranial nerves are visible in which dissections (which views of the head and neck, once the dissections are completed). For example, if I want to tag the hypoglossal nerve on a practical exam, there are potentially five places I can do that: (1) coming off the brainstem; (2) inside the skull, going through the hypoglossal canal; (3) outside the skull, coming out of the hypoglossal canal, or in the deep neck, on the posterior aspect of the pharynx; (4) in the anterior neck, where it arcs below the posterior belly of the digastric muscle; or (5) in the oral cavity, coming into the posterolateral aspect of the tongue. 

Of course, all of this advice presumes that you’re already doing the basic stuff, like studying actively and spending as much time as possible in the lab. If not, read this and do that stuff, too.

Finally, remember that it’s never too late for good study habits to be useful. Even if you put it off until the evening before an exam, a few hours of organized, active studying (plus as many hours of sleep as you can manage) will help you more than frantically cramming all night.

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