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

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

Field Guide to the Human Body:  Bone Names

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology
  • Many time-saving, effort-saving, and frustration-saving tips and shortcuts

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

More Tips on Learning the Human Skeleton
  • Additional blog posts (including this one) focusing on bones

Monday, August 12, 2013

Exercise (lightly) while you study

Some recent research has shown that if you exercise lightly while you study, you may learn a bit better than if you are sitting quietly.

Apparently, light exercise--for example, riding a stationary bike at a gentle pace--during the process of creating new memories helps you remember things better.  However, vigorous exercise seems to reduce recall in the short term and has no effect in the long term.

There's certainly more that scientists have to figure out about this phenomenon. But in the mean time, it may be worth trying these strategies:

  • Walk slowly on a treadmill while reviewing your flashcards.
  • Ride gently on an exercise bike while reading your textbook.
  • Listen to an audio summary of your textbook chapters or a recorded lecture while doing light gardening or household chores.
  • Quiz your study partners while taking a leisurely stroll through the park or across campus.  But NOT across the parking lot!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Memory Toolbox

Most A&P students face the challenge of quickly getting their memory skills up to speed.  It may have been a while since you were faced with having to memorize so many facts and concepts in a short period of time.  If you’re taking a summer course, it may be even more daunting because of a shortened term to get it all done.

Need some help improving your memorization skills?  I know, I know, you don’t have time to take more lessons!  That’s OK.  Here’s a really quick—but really useful—review of 75 tips and resources that can put your memory skills into high gear now:

The Memory Toolbox:
75 Tips and Resources
to Go from to Amnesiac to Elephantic

This sounds like a lot—75 tips—but it only takes a few minutes to go through them all.  Really.  And I’ll bet you’ll find a few good tricks in there that you hadn’t thought of.  Which would be well worth an investment of a few minutes, eh?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Legs and wings

What part of your body is the leg?

Wait . . . think carefully before you answer.

If you said the long limb below your waist (or equivalent), you'd be wrong!  Well, okay, it would be correct in everyday conversation.  But it is not anatomically correct.

In anatomical terms, the lower limb (lower extremity) is made of up of the thigh, leg, and foot.  Anatomically, the leg is only that section of the lower limb just below the knee.

The same sort of thing happens with the arm.  In anatomy, the entire upper limb (upper extremity) is not the arm.  Only the section above the elbow is the arm.  The section just below the elbow is the forearm.

One way to help you remember this is think of pieces of chicken.  I realize that not everyone is a meat eater. But those who eat chicken know that it's often served in pieces.  A chicken leg is not the entire lower limb--there's another piece just proximal to the leg: the thigh.  Remember that, and it may be easier to keep the distinction straight in human anatomy.

Likewise, one can think of the two types of pieces often served in an order of chicken wings.  The "drumette," which looks like a mini drumstick, is the arm.  The "flat" or "wingette" is the forearm.

diagram of chicken parts

human parts

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Star power

I continue to be amazed at how many students let a phrase such as, “when you see something like this on the test . . . “ from their professor go by without notice.


Don't they know that this is an intentional statement of what will be on the test?

Professors do this because we know that it's important and that we will be testing you on it.  And we're giving you this obvious hint so that you know that you will encounter it again.

I think it takes some training and practice to listen for those hints and respond to them in a way that helps you in the long run.  So what's a good way to do that?

Leo Malone, one of my chemistry professors, required us to put a star in our notes next to any concept or fact that he introduced with any statement hinting that we'd see it again on a test.  He even stopped class occassionally when he made such a statement to see if we’d put a star in our notes!  This habit has stuck with me for decades.  I still put a star on notes that I take in workshops, courses, meetings, and my other work. When I review my notes, I start with the stars.  I know that these are things that I really need to know or to act on.

In the classes that I teach, I put a star on the whiteboard when I want to emphasize that a point I’m making really is worth remembering.

Why don't you start practicing star power?  I'll bet that by listening for verbal cues and making note of them, you'll find better success in your performance.

It works for me and my students—I’m sure it will work for you!

This pencast shows you what I mean.

brought to you by Livescribe

Want more hints about note taking?  Check out

  • Previous hints in The A&P Student on note-taking at NOTES.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Study Blue

As stated recently, the best way to learn anything is . . .

And one of the easiest and fastest ways to practice learning the basic facts and terminology of A&P is to use flash cards.

One great way of using flash cards is to use an online platform for making, studying, and sharing flash cards.

Study Blue is one of the more popular online flashcard tools.

Here's a brief video introducing the philosophy behind Study Blue

With Study Blue you can can create flash cards on your device based on your course needs, then use their automated system to review them.  You can also create custom study guides and quizzes based on those flash cards.

This brief video Tap. Snap. Speak, shows how simple it is to make a flash card with Study Blue.

Now imagine yourself in A&P lab with a skull.  Or a model of the torso.  Point to a structure, snap a photo and say, "mastoid process." and you've got a great flash card for studying!

Teachers can assemble sets of flashcards with Study Blue  then share them with students.  Of course, students can share with their classmates in study groups.  For example, in your study group you may assign each person a set of flashcards to make based on your course material.  By sharing each of these with the whole study group, everyone now has a whole library of flash cards based on the week's study topics.
Check out Study Blue at

For more advice on making and using flash cards effectively for A&P check out the collection of articles at

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

READ and RAID your textbook

Most students don't know how to read their A&P textbook.

Oh yeah, they give it a try.  They sit down with the book and try to make it through a couple of chapters.  Maybe three or four chapters . . . because, well, er, they've put off reading the book as long as they can.  Look at that thing!  It's huge!  And all the complex terminology!

It's not that they can't read . . . the problem is that they don't have the needed skills to use an A&P textbook effectively.

So how can you get more out of that huge, expensive book?  Following are some tips:

1. Look over the organization of the chapter first. 

If there's a brief outline in the chapter opener, don't skip it. If there isn't one, then quickly skip the chapter and read each heading and subheading.  This gives you the gist of the story and provides a framework in your head upon which you can build your understanding as you read.

2. Read all the key terms out loud before reading. 

It sounds crazy, I know.  But it works.  By saying each word before you read, your brain becomes familiar with the term more quickly.  Then, as you read, you won't stumble over the word or simply skip over it--either of which won't help you learn what you need to learn.  If there isn't a word list in the chapter, then simply skim the chapter saying each boldface term out loud.

3. Chunk the chapter.

Some textbook chapters go on and on . . . and on.  Well, don't let them!  Just read one or two sections at a time.  By breaking it up, you can comprehend more of what you read.  And it spreads the work of reading out over several days, making it less likely that you'll avoid a painfully long reading session.

4. Actively review what you read. 

Most textbooks have review questions built into chapter sections and at the end of the chapter.  Don't ignore them.  Better yet, write out the answers.  By using multiple senses, your understanding (and memory) will be strengthened.  Always double check that your answers are correct, perhaps asking your study partners or professor for help.

5. Raid your book later.

After you've read a chapter in your textbook, you're not done with the book.  As you study the material, or build on it in later parts of the course, you'll want to come back to particular topics and "raid" it for specific bits of information to review again.  As you pay attention to the organization of each chapter (see item #1 above), you'll be able to easily find the treasures you need within each chapter.

For more on these tips--plus some additional tips to make your reading easier and more effective--check out the video.

For even more ideas to help you with your textbook, try these:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Anatomy and physiology is something that you'll need the rest of your life!

That's right.  Not only will you need a strong foundation in the concepts of human structure and function for remainder of your academic program, you'll need that foundation for the rest of your career and beyond.  It's the basis for all clinical practice and research.

Some A&P students already have some skills in getting ideas into their short-term memories.  Enough to pass the test.  Then they relearn those ideas for the exam.  But often, much of it is gone months or years down the road.  How can one get it all into long-term memory?

The answer is easy!  


A few months ago, I wrote about the Wallenda model of homeostasis, using the Wallenda family of high-wire fame as an analogy for how the internal environment of the body maintains its vital balance.  Decades ago, when I was a wild animal trainer in the circus, I asked Tino Wallenda the secret to his great talent as a high-wire artist.  He told me, "Practice. Practice. Practice."   That really resonated with me.  I already knew that constant practice is the key to animal training.  Later, when I began teaching [human] students, I realized that no learning "sticks" without a lot of practice.

It's a simple principle.  But how do you put it into play in your A&P studies?  Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Read the book more than once.  Break each chapter into chunks (sections) and read just a bit every day.  When you get to the end of the chapter, start the cycle again.  You'll be surprised at how much more you see and learn on a second or third reading.  It begins to "sink in" after repeated reading.  Don't forget to go back and occasinally re-read chapters you haven't looked at in a while.

  • Do as much homework as you can.  If your instructor doesn't assign homework, then assign it to yourself.  Write out the answers to the review questions at the end of each chapter in your textbook.  Find a study guide (perhaps there is one that supplements your textbook--ask your bookstore or search online).  

  • Make and use flash cards.  You can learn and practice terminology easily with flash cards.  But more advanced methods can be used to sort out relationships and understand the deeper concepts of A&P, as you can see in the video below.  You can also use published study cards to practice.

  • Take the test repeatedly.  Ask your teacher if they have old tests you can use for review.  If not, then make up your own!  This works even better if you have a study group--you can each prepare a test for the others to take.  Review your old tests.  If you don't have them in hand, try to remember the questions that were on them.

  • Do your practice every day.  Break your reading and other practice activities into chunks of about a half hour.  Then do several half-hour practices throughout the day.  Every day.  Holidays, weekends, and your birthday. Really. If you skip a day, you'll feel it.  So try not to skip.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Trick to reduce test anxiety

We all get it.  That nervous—sometimes paralyzing—anxiety just before a big exam.  Or worse—we panic and forget even the simplest things during a big test.

Test anxiety.  It’s not just annoying, it can affect your performance.  And your grades!

And final exams are almost upon us.

Recent research has revealed an easy and effective trick for reducing test anxiety during your next big test.  You do this trick just before the test.  I mean in the few minutes you have just before the text begins.  You know, that time you are sitting in the hallway nervously awaiting for the doors to open and the test to begin. Listening to your classmates talk about all that stuff you’re not sure you know well enough.  Frantically going over your notes one last time.  Making yourself a nervous wreck.

OK, so what is this nifty trick?

Journal your anxiety.

What?!  Write out my feelings like in a middle-school diary?

Well, yes—sort of.  Research shows that if you take about ten minutes to write out (not just think about) your feelings at the moment, you’ll feel less anxious during your exam.  And because of that (the research shows) you will do better on the exam! 

On average, students that use this technique raise their grade and average of one whole letter grade.  So even if you think it’s silly, isn’t it worth trying?

Students in a research study reported that by writing out their feelings, they quickly got to a point of calm and confidence.  The writing somehow took the energy out of the anxiety and replaced nervousness with readiness. 

So on exam day.  Get there ten minutes early.  Ignore the raving of your frantic pals.  And just write what’s going through your head.  When the exam starts, you’ll be ready for it.

Want to know more?

Read the story behind this trick:

Testing Anxiety: Researchers Find Solution To Help Students Cope

Check out my advice on breathing to reduce test anxiety:

Don’t forget to breathe!

Need some advice on preparing well for exams?

Previous articles on exam strategies

Brief video on preparing for exams

Another strategy with proven results: 

Tame Test Anxiety: Solid Anxiety Reduction Training



Photo by Josh Davis under CC license

Monday, November 19, 2012

Edraw Mindmap

Making concept maps or "mind maps" is a great way to learn A&P.  It's also a great way to study for your midterm or final exam!

As I've stated frequently in previous posts, a concept map is simply a drawing of a concept.  The simpler the better, so there's no need for artistic skills.

One of my students recently make me aware of another FREE tool you can use to make your own concept maps quickly and easily.  It's called Edraw Mindmap.

If you want to see how it works, check out the Edraw video Make an Effective Mind Map.  This video has a funky robotic narration, but it gives you a quick rundown on how easy the software is to use.  Maybe you should turn off the sound and play your favorite music (the narration simply speaks tips that clearly printed in the video).

Want to know more?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)

Having trouble visualizing the ventricles and canals that contain CSF (cerebrospinal fluid)?   Or the pathway of circulation of the CSF?

Here's a brief animated video that walks you through it all in a simple, straightforward way.

The video uses eponyms and other terminology you may not be using in your course, so here are some translations:
  • ependymal cavity = ventricle
  • foramina of Munro = interventricular foramina
  • aqueduct of Sylvius = cerebral aqueduct (aqueduct of midbrain)
  • foramen of Magendie = median foramen or median aperture (of fourth ventricle)
  • granulations of Pacchioni = arachnoid villi or arachnoid granulations

Click on the image above for a freaky animated MRI (magnetic resonance image) showing the pulsing of the CSF with the hearbeat in aa person with normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). Image (c) Nevit Dilmen.

For more on differences in terminology, check out my video:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Master the trapezius

One of the most recognizable muscles of the human body is also sometimes the hardest to figure out.  I'm talking about the trapezius muscle.   How can it both elevate the shoulder and depress it?  And also produce so many other diverse movements?

The folks at Visible Body have offered a FREE helper to explore the trapezius.  It called the Trapezius Digital Kit and it provides both a downloadable mini eBook and a downloadable video.

Check out the free "digital kit" here:

Also, try out this video: