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How to learn anatomy using active recall



"Memory has always been fundamental for me. In fact, remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started." - Seamus Heaney

Memory and remembering are fundamental for all of us. Retrieval is not only the fountain of inspiration for the above Irish poet, but for your learning as well. A very useful principle you can start using is called active recall. As the name suggests, it involves ‘straining’ or actively engaging your memory during learning or remembering. In other words, it happens when you say all the branches of the maxillary artery with the book closed. Its potential is limitless regarding the type of information you can learn; ranging from grocery lists, to work tasks and even anatomy. Unfortunately, the power of active recall is shrouded by clouds of misconceptions and is quite reluctantly implemented by students, teachers and professors.

Hippocampus (memory centre) - cranial view

Incorrectly understanding something can definitely discourage you from attempting it. Alternatively, the benefits of active recall could be crystal clear in your head, but you simply have not tried it yet. Perhaps you don’t know how to use it or where to begin. Luckily, it’s very straightforward! There are quite a few learning methods which incorporate active recall very easily. However, when it comes to this strategy, it is about applying a very simple and general principle. This article will explain how you can use active recall to learn anatomy and give you some ready-to-go methods which you can start using immediately. Basically, you get an electronic library of the most efficient study methods.

Why active recall?

Active recall is a principle of efficient learning. As the name suggests, it means remembering by straining or stimulating your mind. When used, it instantly switches on your brain and forces you to really use it.

Switched on

The magic of active recall lies in its ability to cement knowledge. Essentially, active retrieval strengthens neural connections and recruits all neurons involved in a particular memory. It is also extremely versatile, insightful and saves a great amount of time. For more information about the importance of active recall in learning anatomy, have a look at this article. It can truly work wonders for your studies!

General idea

Using active recall to manage all that anatomy learning is easy as 1-2-3! Since it is a principle rather than a method, it has a very general usage and wide applications. The essence of this algorithm is to test yourself and here are the steps you need to follow:

Step 1: Familiarise yourself with the material you wish to learn. Reading is not forbidden when using active recall. Let’s be honest, you can’t remember something if you don’t understand it. However, it is only performed at two important moments in this overall algorithm, the first one being now. Do you want to learn about the anatomy of the sciatic nerve? Simply open your favourite textbook and start reading the corresponding pages. Alternatively, use Kenhub’s article about the subject. You get focused and factual information without the unnecessary details often plaguing textbooks. If you want to make your life even easier, have a look at the videos. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you familiarise yourself with the information, as long as you do it.


Step 2: This is essential and the key to the entire process. Put everything away and force yourself to remember what you’ve just read. You can recite, write, draw, complete practice tests or use any of the methods suggested below. Do not take any peeks if your mind goes blank. Do not become discouraged if you forget a lot because this actually helps you learn. For example, let’s go back to the sciatic nerve. If you want to study it as efficiently as possible, close the book or article, take out a piece of paper and start explaining it as best you can. It will be challenging, but “without a struggle, there can be no progress”  (Frederick Douglass, human rights leader).

Step 3: Check how accurately you recalled the information. For some online or electronic study methods, you automatically obtain this feedback. For less cutting edge ones involving pen and paper, you need to read the information again. Re-reading; a terrible practice during active retrieval… This is the second time you should ever use it when applying this principle. If you review in an active and smart way, you should not need to repeat this step because you will have to try really hard to forget the information!

Checking information

Step 4: Review regularly using active recall. In the first study session, you should repeat steps two and three until you feel you learned the material well. After that, review every few days or use spaced repetition to really propel your revision. Don’t bother opening the textbook and start reading about the sciatic nerve during the review sessions. It can be very tempting because you might feel that you don’t remember anything. However, if you strain your brain for a while and give it a chance, you could be surprised by its potential! Instead, start explaining the anatomy of the nerve purely from memory. Only if you feel you have forgotten information, then look it up. 

Useful methods

There are a plethora of learning methods you can use to learn anatomy in a way that will actually stick. Many of these ideas can be used simultaneously, so combine them to your heart’s desire and have fun! Here are some suggestions:

  • Feynman technique - This method was invented by Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winner in physics. It is based on Einstein’s belief that “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”. To use it, take out a piece of paper and start explaining a concept as if you’re talking to a six year old child which has no idea about the subject. This forces you to use the clearest and most concise language possible, which also tests your understanding.

  • Quizzes/tests - Taking tests has been an all time favourite method for professors to assess their students. However, they can also help you learn tremendously by forcing you to apply and use your knowledge; consolidating it. You can generally find practice exam questions at the end of most anatomy book chapters, previous exams held in your university or you can simply create essay type questions and answer them. If you want to save time, use Kenhub’s quizzes! They are already prepared for you, use spaced repetition, and offer you a variety of question styles. In addition, they really test your complete understanding of anatomical concepts.


  • Flashcards - You have more than likely used this method at least once in your life as a student. It consists of writing a question on the front of an index card and an answer on the back of it. Then you simply try to answer the question from memory, check the details on the back, score yourself each time and repeat every few days. It is active recall at its finest! One way to score yourself is using 'pluses' for correct answers without hesitation and 'minuses' for incorrect ones or hesitations of correct ones. When you have three consecutive 'pluses' in a row over repeated study sessions (spaced over a number of days), you can put that card away for a long time. If this feels like too much effort, just use Anki or a quiz which is already prepared.

  • Study groups - This method can be hit or miss. Certain people find it very beneficial to answer questions and discuss concepts with a group. Others find it distracting and feel they could cover more material on their own. If you like this learning environment, it certainly involves active retrieval. Quizzing each other, discussing about a topic, preparing each other tests, presenting a particular concept to the group can all help you learn very efficiently.

Study group

  • Note taking - This method is very similar to the Feynman technique. The only difference is your target audience. Rather than explaining it to a child, you simply write down what you remember and organize the information like typical class notes with headings, sub-headings and details. In addition to engaging your brain, you also create a summary written in your own words which you can check later on, if the need arises. This is technically how notes should be written rather than copied from books or lectures like most students do.

  • Memory palace - Very few people heard of this technique, but if you watched the TV series 'Sherlock Holmes' you are well versed in it. This ancient roman technique involves mentally associating facts or terms with features located in a well known place, for example your home, bedroom or former school. Basically, anything you can visualize and describe clearly. It is very useful for learning lists, and anatomy certainly has its fair share of them. For example, it can help you with branches of arteries, cranial nerves, trajectories, neuroanatomy, etc. By re-visiting your mental memory palace frequently, you practice active recall and learn in the process.

  • Concept/mind maps - This is actually quite a popular method amongst health science students because it gives you a chance to have the most important information about a concept on a single page. The difference between concept and mind maps is subtle and it mostly involves presentation. When creating either of them from memory, you take important words and link them together, creating a map of understanding. This creation is actually a reflection of what goes on inside your brain, so it is very easy to identify gaps in your knowledge. Creating a mind map is easy - write the concept in the middle of the page, jot down key words that explain it or are connected to it and connect them together.

Mind Map - Proximal End of Humerus

  • Atlases - While your anatomy atlas can be a burden and a nightmare, it can also be your best friend in terms of learning. One way you could use it, is to familiarize yourself with a structure and then draw it from memory. Alternatively, you could eliminate the labels, either by covering them with your hand, post-its or electronically, then try to label as many structures as you can. This method will really create the essential visual representation of anatomy that future medical professions require daily.

This list is by no means exhausted. You can use anything that makes you close the book and use your brain in an active way. There is a reason all that re-reading and inefficient studying gets you nowhere. It doesn’t work very well! Instead, follow the above tactics and you will always be on top of your anatomy course.​

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Article, Review and Layout:

  • Adrian Rad
  • Francesca Salvador


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