Common mistakes that hinder your anatomy learning
“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” - Winston Churchill
Mistakes are inevitable. Unless you live in a vacuum and you are totally isolated from society, you will have to make decisions from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you go to bed. It’s a matter of “when” rather than “if” because there is a potential for a mistake in any decision taken. The only upside is that some errors are forgiving and smaller in magnitude and they can be excellent lessons for your future.
Everyone knows the importance of learning from their mistakes. This mentality has become so popular that “learn from it and move on” is everyone’s favourite reply nowadays. However, how many people are truly wise and learn from their mistakes? Not a lot, especially in the areas of education, studying, and learning. Think back to all the times when you received a bad result, failed an anatomy exam, or simply performed below your expectations. You reflected on your mistakes, believing that you arrived at the perfect solution - you will simply study harder and longer next time. Is this really specific and sufficient to classify it as learning from your mistakes? The reason for this vagueness is a lack of knowledge of your mistakes, including potential ones. This article will discuss the common errors that hinder your anatomy learning and possible ways to avoid them.
Learning from mistakes is an invaluable approach that every human being needs to take in life. However, it is easier said than done. It only works if you take a big step back and truly analyse what you did and what went wrong. Unfortunately, if you are like 99% of students, you are probably attributing your blunders to simply not working hard enough, rather than deeply analysing the root of your problems.
Learning anatomy is not an easy task. The sheer volume of information which you need to learn in record time creates the perfect breeding ground for mistakes. This equates to wasted time, inefficient learning, and the constant need to start again. Running around in circles is the last thing you need! Would it not be easier to be like 1% of students and know the potential mistakes you can make when learning, in order to avoid rather than fix them? After all, “prevention is better than cure”. Here are the most common pitfalls:
Not having a plan - This is the primary mistake done by almost every student and is the source of many future problems. Your standard anatomy book has one thousand pages, on average, and you actually need to remember a significant amount from it. Don’t forget that 90% of anatomy learning is carried out by you and not in class. If you don’t create a daily or weekly plan from day one and divide your work accordingly, you will simply not cover the entire material in the required amount of time. Remember that “failing to plan is planning to fail” (Alan Lakein, time management expert).
Not investing the time - As important as it is to plan your work, you also need to take action and follow the schedule. Don’t be the person that procrastinates and keeps making a new, elaborately marked, coloured, and styled schedule every day without actually studying! Learning anatomy takes time, no matter what ingenious study methods you use. You need to invest time, blood, sweat and tears into this subject. Don’t try to take shortcuts and leave it in the last minute because you will regret it! Cramming never works!
Believing in myths - Are you a student that believes in speed reading? Do you consider yourself as having a particular learning style, making you a visual, kinesthetic, or auditory learner? Don’t do it! These are simply myths which apart from not helping your anatomy learning, they completely hinder and limit it. In addition, even though you might like study groups, they’re not as beneficial as you might think!
Learning chronologically and not prioritarily - Simply because your anatomy book, lecture notes, or teaching follows a certain format, it does not automatically mean this is the most effective way of learning the information. For example, maybe the material is taught according to systems rather than regions, but for you it is much more easy to learn everything about the head and neck before studying the thorax, rather than jump between sections. Also, it’s a lot more important to learn some material better compared to other topics, even though an equal amount of time was spent on each. Learning exactly how it is taught is the result of secondary level education, which does not work in third level institutions. For a factual subject like anatomy, no one really cares how you learn it at the end of the day, as long as you know it.
Not asking for help - This is another dangerous trap you could fall into. It especially relates to health science students who are independent, intellectual, and high achievers. It also particularly refers to individuals with a Y chromosome. If you don’t understand something or if you have any problems, simply ask! If you’re having a particular difficulty, there is an incredibly high chance that those around have it too, but are simply too afraid to admit it. "The reason why we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." (Steven Furtick).
Not visualising the information - There is a reason for all the images in your anatomy book, the requirement of an atlas, cadaveric dissections, and anatomical models. This subject is extremely visual and you need to fit the tool to the purpose and learn it appropriately. If you perform a surgical intervention on the thorax, you don’t need to write an essay. Instead, you need to recognize what you see, what you cut, and especially what to leave intact. It’s about “seeing” the subject matter in your mind’s eye, so turn every figure inside-out and back-to-front when you learn the information!
Not seeing the big picture - How do you think the majority of students learn anatomy? They open the book, go to the beginning of a chapter or topic and start learning from the very first line. They don’t even try to skim ahead, read the headings or subheadings and arrange the information in a logical way. Learning should be like an onion - the essential and general picture should be the core out of which all subsequent details grow out of. If you simply read along as the book is written, you will get bogged down and lost into the nitty-gritty of the first topic. Don’t use the details to build the knowledge, but rather fit them into something already established!
Not putting it in context - Why do you think you forget so much anatomy after a certain time and you need to constantly revise? It is because you don’t put the material in context. This does not apply to every anatomy department in the world, but it is relevant to many of them. In order to remember anatomical facts for a longer period of time, you need to cement them. The context is the glue sticking facts together. For anatomy, it involves learning as much clinical information as possible, even if you are not asked about it in exams. It’s definitely good to learn that the left renal vein is sandwiched between the superior mesenteric artery (SMA) and abdominal aorta at a certain point. However, it is even better to know that the SMA can compress the renal vein and cause a renal vein entrapment syndrome, together with a list of symptoms. You not only apply it and remember it longer, but you also see that what you are learning is directly relating to your future job and it makes learning more enjoyable and interesting.
Learning passively - Mastering anatomy by reading and re-reading does not work. In fact, you might waste a lot of time doing that. What’s even more worrying is the popularity, since almost all students seem to do it. If you want to get through the mound of anatomy information as effectively and efficiently as possible, you need to use active recall. Read the information only once, close the book and then imagine you are teaching the information to someone, create flashcards, draw mind-maps, etc. Essentially, test yourself and don’t simply read repetitively because you are simply fooling yourself.
The solutions to the majority of the above mistakes are pretty straightforward - don’t do them. In a nutshell, plan out, invest the required amount of time, visualise the information and learn it in the most logical way possible, rather than how it is presented.
All of the above sound easy, but are they? If you are unsure where to begin, a good starting point would be Kenhub’s website. In addition to videos and articles offering you anatomical knowledge, it has an atlas which you can easily use to start visualising the information, quizzes to help you test yourself, and many learning strategies to stop learning passively. The options are incredibly diverse! Do you want an efficient way to memorise all those arterial branches? Go and check out memory palaces! If you are a fan of flashcards, simply click here and start using Anki! This is only a glimpse of what is included in there.
Overall, there are quite a few common mistakes that you can easily do and which will definitely hinder your anatomy learning. Luckily, solutions do exist and are not that difficult to apply. Just keep in mind that although mistakes are inevitable, if you are aware of them to prevent rather than correct, your learning will instantly become easier.