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 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 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 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 and and

  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.

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.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

  • Anne Lamott. Anchor. First published 1 January 1994.
  • Great book.  Great author. That is all.

Survival Guide for Anatomy & Physiology

  • Kevin Patton. Elsevier. Oct 18, 2013.
  • Tips and techniques for studying A&P, including tissues, mentions the birding analogy.

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:

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:

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