Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't forget to breathe!

Exam time is just around the corner!  I have some advice for you:

Don't forget to breathe!

Well, duh-uh, of course you are going to breathe.  What I'm referring to is a proven, effective way to quickly and easily reduce test anxiety during a final exam.  We all suffer from some degree of text anxiety, right?  So I think we can all benefit from this technique.

It's simple: when you start to feel anxious or stressed during an exam simply stop focusing on the exam and start focusing on your breathing.  Breathe slowly and  try to soften your focus, so that you're not really concentrating on anything in particular.  But you are vaguely aware of the slow inhalation and exhalation of quiet breathing.

As a recent report on National Public Radio reminds us, this seems to trigger our parasympathetic "quiet breathing" response . . . thus counteracting the sympathetic "stress response" that is often characterized by rapid breaths.  This "trick" gets the body to reduce the stress response all around.

Because we know that stress can reduce test performance outcomes, it's a good idea to do what you can to reduce test anxiety during an exam right?

By the way, it seems to work better if you practice it frequently . . . so why not start right now?

Listen to (or read) the story at Just Breathe: The Body Has a Built-in Stress Reliever.

To help you get ready, look at some of my previous blog articles for tips, tricks, and videos on various other exam strategies.

Top: used by permission

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Concept Mapping

In a previous post I outlined some of the benefits of using concept maps.  Also known as mind maps, they are simply charts that sketch out how you understand a particular concept.  This helps you map out for yourself how the pieces of a complex topic relate to one another . . .and perhaps also how they relate to other concepts.

You've seen concept maps before.  They are scattered throughout your A&P textbook.  They can take the form of flow charts, tables, circle diagrams, sketches, and so on.  When you make your own concept map, you help yourself to learn how it all fits together.

If you struggle with putting together a concept map, that's great!  That means that you've identified a specific hole in your understanding.  You can't complete a concept map unless you understand where to place all the bits into the picture, right?  Once you stumble, you know what parts of your understanding are weak.  And that means you know what sections of the textbook you need to explore further.  Or what questions you need to ask your study group, your professor, or your tutor.

When you've finished the concept map, you've learned quite a bit.  Your understanding of the concept is deeper.

And the finished concept map serves as a handy reference for future study and review.  If you keep it for the long term, which I recommend, it becomes part of your own personal encyclopedia that never stops growing.  And which, I hope, you continue to update as your learning expands.

I recently ran across a FREE online tool that creates concepts maps in a simple chart style.  It's called and it's really easy to use.  You just cut and paste (or type in) and outline of a concept and the tool will automatically generate a concept map! 

You can then tweak the layout, the levels, the colors, the fonts, etc.   Then with a single click you can save your concept map as a graphics file.  You then have the option of printing out your concept map or sharing it with a friend or embedding it in your class notes.

Want to know more about concept mapping?  Visit my page on Concept Maps in the Lion Den.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Trouble with tissues?

I don't think I've ever met a person who could identify tissues of the body on sight on their first day of trying. And yet many A&P students get frustrated just because they can't "get it" after only one day of trying. Identifying tissue types by sight is difficult for everyone, at first—for  several reasons.

First, each example is unique. No two examples look exactly alike, just like no two fingerprints look exactly alike.So you have to learn to look for patterns. And you can't do that until you've looked at a lot of examples. And that takes time—and a lot of practice.

Second, not all examples are stained in exactly the same way. Even when the same general type of staining is used, a lot depends on the quality of the sample, the quality of the stain used, and how well the preparer did their job. So again, you have to look for patterns. For example, stratified squamous epithelium can be found in wildly different colors, depending upon which type of staining technique is used. But no matter what the color, the pattern of flattened cells near the free edge, progressing to cuboidal and perhaps even column-shaped cells further away from the free edge, will still be present.

Third, when you look for patterns you have to remember what part of the pattern is important. You also have to remember that many patterns are very similar, so you have to remember how to tell them apart. For example, dense fibrous connective tissue can look a lot like fibrocartilage at first glance. You have to learn to look for the little white halos around the cells in fibrocartilage that tell you that the cells are within lacunae (spaces).

Oh, did I mention that practice, practice, practice is important?

Tissue identification really isn't as hard as it first seems. It really is mainly just a matter of putting the time into practicing.

Here are some tips for getting the most practice time in during the short time you have studied tissues:
  • Spend as much time in the lab as possible. If there are open lab times available, by all means take advantage of it.

  • If there is a learning center available with tissue specimens spend as much time as you can with them.

  • Use the examples published in your textbook and lab manual, or any other resource (such as a Brief Atlas of the Body),to practice identifying tissues. Cover up the labels and see if you can identify them. Make a photocopy of the images, cutaway or cover-up the labels, and test yourself.

  • Ask your instructor for other sources of practice images. Sometimes, someone will have taken photographs of the specimens used in your class. This is a good resource for practicing.

  • There are a lot of online resources for practicing tissue identification. Here are a few of my favorites – you can find many more by searching the web using key terms such as "tissues," "histology," and similar terms.

    • LUMEN
      [Loyola University's famous histology site; includes lessons on histology]

    • Blue Histology
      [Histology site at School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia]

    • Dr. Stephen Larsen's Channel (YouTube)
      [Dr. Larsen walks you through a variety of specimens as they are seen under the microscope.]

    • The A&P Professor Free Image Library
      [My site for A&P teachers includes links to free images of tissues that you can use to practice histology.]

  • Use flash cards (study cards) with photocopies of tissue specimens or printouts of digital images. See my recent blog article for a video on how to use flash cards in this manner.  Mosby's Anatomy & Physiology Study and Review Cards includes some histology cards along with all other topics in A&P.

  • Try to study a little bit several times each day, rather than a few long sessions several days apart. Constant practice is what works best.
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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Using flash cards

Flash cards are just for kids, right?  Wrong.

Flash cards, also known as study cards, are one of the most useful strategies you can use in studying human anatomy & physiology.

Here's a brief video that offers some practical tips for using study cards to reduce your study time and get a solid foundation in learning any topic.  This video also includes some surprising advanced techniques that show how to use flash cards to also learn higher-level thinking in any topic of A&P . . . or any other subject.

The video includes
  • A clear explanation of the Leitner system, plus my own "easy to use" adaptation of the Leitner system
  • Using color codes and symbols
  • How to use cards to learn processes and ordered structures
  • How to use cards to build concept maps (mind maps).

You can find many other tips on using flash cards at the newly updated page New Terms at and in previous articles in The A&P Student blog.

Looking for packaged study cards that you can use for your A&P course? 
Try Mosby's Anatomy & Physiology Study and Review Cards

Monday, July 26, 2010

Whack a Bone!

Want a fun and FREE way to get started in learning anatomy?  Try the games at Anatomy Arcade.
These arcade-style games are a wacky way to quickly pickup the the basics of human anatomy before you dive into the details.  Or should I say "whacky?" . . . because one of my favorites is Whack a Bone (a parody of the famous Whack a Mole arcade game).

In Whack a Bone, you quickly learn the names and locations of the major bones of the skeleton, one region at a time.  Even for an old pro like me, I found the Whack a Bone games to be fun.  The games include won't help you learn any of the foramina of the skull or the other detailed features and regions of each individual bone.  But they will help you get started by quickly learning the bone names and their shapes and locations and relationships to other bones in a painless and fun way.

Some of the other games found at Anatomy Arcade are
  • Poke a Muscle
  • Match a Brain
  • Digestive Jigsaw
  • Eye Jigsaw
  • Match a Body System

All these games are meant for learning the body's structure at a very elementary level . . . exactly where all A&P students need to start.  You cannot get to the details until you have learned the basics.

Let me know what you think about the Anatomy Arcade games!  (post a comment here)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Selling your textbook?

Book warningI hope I didn't catch you too late!  It's time for my annual warning to NOT sell your textbook.

This is the time of year when many A&P students think about selling their textbook back to the bookstore or textbook co-op.  Some sell them directly to other students on campus or through an online platform.  DON'T DO IT!

Why not?  Because you still need it!

Just because your A&P course is over, your use of your A&P textbook is far from over.  Here are just a few of the many reasons you should keep your A&P materials, including the textbook:
  • You'll need to review your A&P at the start of nearly every topic in your professional / clinical courses.  Many nursing, medical, and allied health textbooks include a brief review of A&P . . . but you'll do better with a quick skim of your fully illustrated A&P textbook.

  • Your A&P textbook will get you out of a jam.  There will be occasional moments when you "blank out" on some essential bit of A&P . . . something you need to "get it" in a later course.  Your trusty A&P textbook will come to your rescue by providing refreshing your understanding of that tricky concept . . . in a way that is already familiar and comfortable for you.

  • You need to start a professional library.  So many health professionals begin their careers regretting that they sold off many of the essential reference tools they need to get started in a successful professional career.  Your A&P textbook is the core around which you should begin building your professional library of resources. 

  • When you're out there in the "real world" you'll need some tools to help you cope with new situations.  It's a great comfort to have your A&P book there to help you review basic concepts that you haven't run across in a while.  When you're pulled to a different department, start a job in a new specialty, or struggle through a professional continuing education course, you'll find your old A&P book is a great place to dig out all those things you know you know . . . but with which you need some brushing up.
I can't tell you how many times I've bumped into former students of mine who ask me, "hey, you don't happen to have an old A&P book laying around your office I could have?

I just smile and reply, "you sold off yours after our course ended, didn't you?

The sheepish reply then comes, "yeah, I know you told us to hold on to it but I didn't think I'd really need it.  Now I REALLY need it to help me in my nursing course!"

[FYI, we A&P professors really do NOT have a pile of old A&P books laying around to give away.]

Considering that you rarely get much of a return on selling a used textbook, it really isn't much of a hardship to keep your A&P textbook.  You'll be really glad that you did!

Also see my Study Tip Your Professional Library in the Lion Den.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Translating muscle names

When you first face that long list of names of muscle that you need to learn in A&P, you may be taken aback by the odd names of the major human muscles.  Well, that and the sheer number of muscles you'll be tested on!

But what makes those muscle names so odd . . . the fact that they are Latin phrases . . . can be used as a shortcut to help you identify those muscles!

For example, the muscle name latissimus dorsi tells you exactly where to find this muscle.  Latissimus means "way over to the side" and dorsi means "back."   So the phrase latissimus dorsi muscle means "back muscle way over to the side."  This not only tells you exactly where the muscle is . . . once you learn the meaning of the name, you have a way to remember the muscle.

Check out this video for a clearer idea of this strategy.

Then check out this article in my Lion Den Study Tips & Tools . . . Muscle Names.

This article also has more video to help you learn the meaning of muscle names AND a FREE downloadable, printable list of muscle names and meanings (and pronunciations).

For a great resource in learning about muscles, perhaps to add to your growing professional library, check out the book The Muscular System Manual: The Skeletal Muscles of the Human Body

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Committing Time to A&P

The student handbook at our college recommends that students spend about 2 hours of study time outside of class for every hour in class (including lab).  I tell my students that's the average . . . and A&P is an above average course . . . so count on spending even more time studying outside of class.

But what to do about time commitments to family, friends, hobbies, and jobs?  Depending on your life situation, these could also be very demanding of your time and attention.

In my book Survival Guide For Anatomy And Physiology: Tips, Techniques And Shortcuts I outline a few strategies that may help you.  Here are some of those tips . . . and few others:
  • Share your study time with others.  If you have kids, then do your sketching and coloring and concept mapping side-by-side as you kids do their homework.  Kids will be more motivated to do their homework when they see mommy or daddy doing homework.  And it brings them more into what you are doing, giving them an inside peek at what is taking up so much of your time these days. You can do this with your spouse or friends, too, even if they're not in your A&P class . . . you can work on A&P while they work on their homework (or their sewing or their stamp collection).

  • Set aside alone time.  Some of your study time probably needs to be free of the distractions of others around you.  So set aside time each week to work alone.  This may mean getting child care or elder care for part of the week.  But such a sacrifice may be worth it if it helps you succeed and reach your goals.

  • Get your significant others on board.  I recommend that before starting A&P (or early in your A&P adventure) you have a heart to heart chat with your friends, your family, your coworkers, or anyone else who will be impacted by the time and attention you'll need to be giving to your studies.  Try to make them a part of helping you achieve your goals.  Ask them what they are willing to do to help you.  It could be that they promise not to pester you for more time or to refrain from pushing into giving up your study night to go out and party.  It could be that they offer to take on some of your chores or other commitments to give you more time for your study.  If you just start taking time from friends or family, without it being clear to them why, then you risk them becoming resentful.  By making them a part of the process of planning your study strategy, they will feel more a part of your road to success . . . a feeling that will bring you all closer together.

  • Make sure you have time just for family and friends.  Although you need to set aside significant time for your studies, you also need time for the rest of your life.  So as steadfast as you are about protecting your study time, be just as steadfast protecting your friend and family time.  When your loved ones know that they're important and will have their time with you, too, they won't feel so bad about losing you to your studies.

  • Stay organized.  Different folks have different styles of organizing themselves and their tasks.  But you have to do something to organize your studies of A&P . . . there's just so much to do and to keep track of and to keep up with.  Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can just "wing it."  Perhaps you did that in high school or in other college courses.  But only the very rare person can do that in A&P successfully.  So even if you never done it before, get a calendar and plan out what you need to be doing and when.  Regularly assess your progress and adjust your schedule accordingly.

  • Know why you're doing this.  One of my most successful students reminded me recently after a help session, "Those were great tips, Kevin, but all you really need is a 'can do' attitude."   That's absolutely right.  If you start with a winning attitude, and stay focused on the reason why you need to know the structure and function of the body so thoroughly, it makes all the time and effort enjoyable.  You'll learn more useful information and skills in your A&P course than any other college course.  Really.  Even stuff that will help you in "real life."  So why not make the most of it? 

Want to know more?  Get new tips from The A&P Student as soon as they are published by subscribing to the FREE newsletter.

And don't forget to submit your own tips to share with other A&P students!

Image source: / CC BY 2.0