Podcast Episodes

Podcast 70: Anatomy Survival Guide


Spencer Evans is a first-year medical student at the University of Colorado and is our host for this episode. He wants to provide a resource for future medical students who are going to be taking anatomy, as he just completed his human body block a few days ago.

[1:01] Adjustments.

There are definitely a lot of emotions involved in seeing a human cadaver for the first time. People have different ways of processing it, but just know that any way you deal with it is okay. Another major adjustment is the sheer magnitude of content. Spencer actually failed his first anatomy test and then made changes, later passing with a comfortable margin.

[3:29] Tip #1.

Make sure that you’re learning actively. Learning passively will not allow you to retain nearly as much information.

[5:23] Tip #2.

Focus on high-yield concepts. Your clinicals are when you focus on learning what will help you in the clinical setting. For now, learn what will help you perform best in anatomy classes.

[6:24] Tip #3.

Complete practice quizzes. Continuously test yourself on information in formats that the class is providing to ensure you are learning correctly.

[7:23] Tip #4.

Figure out which is better for you: going to lectures or watching on your computer. Make sure that you are taking in the content in the best way.

[8:48] Tip #5.

A lot of research has been done that says flashcards are probably the best way of memorizing information. Writing out flashcards would be a waste of time, but luckily, there are electronic ones.

[11:43] Tip #6.

Spencer personally needs seven hours of sleep and to go to the gym three times a week. Concentrating too much on school will make him miserable, and the time he does spend on school will be less efficient. You have to find out what works for you.

[12:52] Tip #7.

Stay present. It’s a lot tougher than you think to concentrate on a lecture or during study time.

[13:38] Tip #8.

Don’t compare yourself to classmates. You’re surrounding yourself with people who are excellent at memorization. Focus on your work. You’re there for a reason.

[15:03] Tip #9.

Don’t give up on trying new things because you never know what might work better for you.


Full Transcription

Welcome to the Prospective Doctor podcast brought to you by MedSchoolCoach. Each week we cover topics related to the pre-med journey to medical school and beyond. From the MCAT to completing your application and from starting medical school to choosing a specialty. Our podcast will provide essential information for anyone contemplating a career in medicine.

My name is Spencer Evans. I am a first year medical student at the University of Colorado and I’m tuning in right now to provide a podcast for future medical students who are going to be taking anatomy. I just finished my human body block a few days ago and definitely have some pearls of wisdom that I would have benefited from hearing before I started the class. So I figured I would contribute to Prospective Doctor this podcast to help others who are taking anatomy.

I think that the first thing that I would have wanted to know was that I should generally prepare myself for the shock factor that accompanies first of all seeing a human cadaver. There are definitely a lot of emotions involved in that and people have different ways of processing it but just know that any way that you deal with it is okay and you shouldn’t feel any expectations to react in a certain way or be okay about certain things and if you’re upset it’s all right. Talk to someone about it. It’s perfectly natural.

The second major adjustment is definitely adjusting to the sheer magnitude of content that you’re going to be exposed to in this class. They say that medical school is a lot like drinking water from a fire hydrant and that is for good reason. It’s because the amount of material that you have to memorize is without a doubt the most amount of material that until this point in your life you’ve ever been asked to memorize and understand. And for me personally I started anatomy when I was three years out of college so, the adjustment period was a bit magnified as I had to relearn how to learn, and this was at the highest level and I have yet been exposed to. So I’m going to talk a bit about what I did at the beginning of the course that really wasn’t working for me and I actually technically failed my first anatomy test. Both the practical and the written parts and I made changes based off of advice that I got from my roommates and my fellow classmates who were performing very well in the class and are actually acing the class so I instituted new learning strategies and I eventually started to perform well in the class and even came back from the cadaver grave so to speak and ended up passing the class by a comfortable margin.

So the tips I’m going to provide are ones that both works for me and ones that worked for my classmates and just the the best advice that I would have liked to have gotten from the beginning.

So the first advice that I would provide about the content itself is to make sure that you’re learning actively. Because of the large amount of material you have a very fine amount of time to spend learning it and committing it to memory. If you’re spending your learning time learning in a passive way like reading textbooks or reading over slides or watching lectures then the amount that you’re going to retain is drastically less than the amount that you would retain if you were actively learning during that time. By active learning, I mean committing things the memory by memorization. So when you are learning for example the brachial plexus rather than just glancing at the picture of it take the time to make a mnemonic that would help you remember all of the branches of it.

Same thing goes with blood flow rather than just looking at it and then moving onward, actually take the time and it might take two or three hours to actually learn how to draw it out from memory and it’s difficult but if you can draw it out from memory it’s going to stick with you for about two to three weeks before you have to look at it again. And make sure you’re continuing to go back to quizzing yourself consistently over time that they call it spaced repetition so that you’re really committing things to memory. So, make sure that you’re actively learning rather than passively learning so that you have the highest retention rate for the amount of time that you’re committing to learning certain material.

Next you’re going to want to focus on high-yield concepts. As I’ve mentioned a few times, there’s a lot of information in anatomy. So you’re going to want to focus on the high-yield topics that are you’re more likely to be tested on.

At my particular school the course directors provided learning objectives and learning objectives were these specific high-yield topics that they tested on so you knew that you were spending time learning information that you were likely to be tested on. And of course there’s the argument that you want to be the best doctors possible and learn as much as possible but that’s going to come later on. They say that the information that’s important is going to come back up in your clinicals are the time to be focusing on learning what’s gonna help you in the clinical setting. For now you just want to learn what’s going to help you perform best in these classes.

Another form of active learning involves practice quizzes. You want to be continuously testing yourself on information in formats that the class is providing you so that you can make sure that you are learning the learning objectives correctly and that you’re learning the content correctly and that you have this complex information down in the correct way and that you’re not just convincing yourself that you have a firm grasp of the information. This was actually advice that I got from my anatomy block director after I failed my first test because she had said that the questions on the exams were most similar to the practice quizzes and that will probably be the case at your school as well because the schools want you perform well so they’re going to give you practice quizzes that are likely active and accurate representations of the material on your exam. OK next.

There is a larger debate over whether in medical school you should go to lectures in person or watch them online. I honestly think the jury’s still out on what is best in this regard. However, people and I mean that in an objective way because my classmates very much differ in terms of what they prefer. I have some friends who get distracted easily in a lecture. They’ll space out for 10 or 15 minutes then they’ll get lost and walk out of that lecture feeling like it was a waste of time and I have similarly other friends who find it very isolating to watch lectures on their laptops alone. So you’re going to want to figure out what works best for you what you’re able to concentrate most on because like I said, due to the large amount of material you want to make sure that you’re spending your time studying optimally. So even if you get a bit lonely studying by yourself if you’re not able to pay attention to the lectures you’re going to want to try to maybe watch those lectures in a more social environment because you want to make sure that you’re taking in the content.

Another form of active learning involves flashcards. There’s been a lot of research that has been done that says flashcards are probably the best way of memorizing information out there. The issue is that once again going back to the large amount of information writing out flashcards for anatomy would be an incredibly inefficient usage of time. Luckily there are electronic flash card apps and a method that I started incorporating was I would take screenshots of slides and essentially whiteout certain parts of the slide and put the whited out versions on the front of the electronic flash card and the full slide on the back so I was able to in a few hours essentially memorize all the contents in all of the lecture slides. So that’s a good method. I would caution about that method that you can get into what is called electronic flash card overdrive where you end up spending hours and hours and hours making these electronic flash cards because there are so many slides. So if you can I would go to a lecture or watch lectures and take those learning objectives and focus on high-yield content and make electronic flashcards based off of that high-yield contact.

When we’re talking about the lab dissections themselves I will admit that the first few dissections, I didn’t really care for I kind of just one in the lab and followed the steps of dissection and was thankfully had lab anatomy group members who knew what the steps were and what was going on so was able to coast a bit based off of that, but I didn’t perform well on the first practical and I wanted to switch things up a bit, so I started preparing for the lab practical by taking pictures of anatomy atlas of certain structures that we would find on a certain dissection and putting them into the electronic flash card app. So I would essentially know what exactly it was that I was going to be with what the structures were that I was going to be identifying in the lab one day before the lab happened and when I got to the dissection I was able to identify it much easier and was actually able to teach to some of my lab members and that actually is probably the best form of active learning. When you’re teaching information to others, it allows you to really master the material and explain it to others.

Now when we get to the whole concept of a school out of school balance it is another thing that is highly personal. Much like whether or not you go to lecture don’t go to lecture.

I personally need seven hours of sleep. I need to go to the gym at least three times a week and I really need to eat healthy. I also enjoy spending time with my friends and doing fun activities and if I am concentrating too much on school for the entire day then I’m gonna be a bit miserable and the time I am spending on school related activities is going to be less efficient. So you have to find out what works for you here. Some of my classmates can function extremely well on five hours of sleep. Others can not eat healthy at all they don’t need to go to the gym and they’re fine and there and they aced anatomy. So this is something that you’re going to have to figure out what works for you but when you figure out works for you stick with it.

And another general mindset tip is really just try to stay present. It’s a lot tougher than you would think but when you’re sitting in lecture or watching a recording or studying it’s there’s a lot from the outsider’s perspective. You would think that it’s easy to just concentrate on the task at hand but it’s not. We’re medical students yes but, we also have friends and personal relationships and family and other stuff comes up and it’s easy to think about that stuff while you’re studying but you think about it too much then you’re not going to get the most out of that study time and you’re going to end up running out of time and not spending enough time studying and not learning things.

And a couple other words of wisdom just some cautions. I really wouldn’t let you compare yourself to your classmates. It’s very easy thing to do when you get to medical school because you’re just around people so naturally you’re going to compare your performance and how much you know to those around you because you’re in such close proximity, but if you start to do this then it’s not going to end well because in medical school you’re surrounding yourself with a group of people that are excellent in terms of being able to memorize and understand large quantities of complex information. So you just don’t want to compare yourself to them. Stay in your lane. You’re there for a reason because you because the admissions committee knows that you’re able to handle the workload. So just focus on your work and don’t worry so much on those around you and that was something that I definitely struggled with a bit during my first part of anatomy especially because I wasn’t performing as well as I wish that I was and I’d look around and see other people cruising through the through the course content and it was easy to get down. But once I realized Hey Spence you’re here you belong here, It was a lot easier to stay in my lane and focus on the work.

And lastly don’t give up. There are going to be times in anatomy when you’re very discouraged and when you want to give up and maybe you want to stick to that method that has worked for you in undergrad and you’re afraid to try something new that might improve your performance but don’t try. Don’t give up on trying new things because you never know what might work better for you and it’s very important not to get too discouraged after a bad performance. I know that I really felt very discouraged after I failed my first test but I was able to stay in there and get through the block and I know all of you will too.

I hope this was helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any specific questions. And that’s it for now. Have a great day.

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