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How to pass your final exam on anatomy & physiology


Illustration that shows the complexity of AnatomyWatch out!

You’re being sneaked up on by final exams. Luckily the human body has a repertoire of senses and reflexes to alert us to possible dangers. You’re probably already aware of this looming threat through many possible ways - this might not be the first time shapes and strokes of letters, captured in the light, filtered through the aqueous focusing layers of your corneas, anterior chambers, pupils and lenses before finally converging upon the retinas staged at the back of your eyes. These retinas are filled with specialised photoreactive rod and cone cells that decode the light into neuronal firing patterns for your temporal lobe to interpret as that one dreaded word: “Exams.”

The ability of sight - conserved across most vertebrates and showing parallel evolution in molluscs - is one of the most incredible and useful tools in our human biology. Understanding the body means knowing not just what each part of our anatomy is, but also why they are there. With revision week coming up, you’re going to find your fovea pointing at a lot of words soon.  Why not take a minute and let some of those words be some unashamedly good advice from the experts? Here are three easy steps to take on ensuring you know everything you need to pass like the back of your hand.

Anatomy of the tooth
Recommended video: Anatomy of the tooth
Structure of the tooth seen in crossection.

Step one: Consider selling your textbooks.

Consider selling your textbooksChances are that they’re already available as part of your course material or at your campus library, but if not there is a wealth of resources available online. Many textbook titles are listed online at databases such as the Free Book Centre or at many university websites and blogs queryable by Google. Nowadays, the only things you need to pass an exam is access to the internet and juuust enough time. Both of which you should already have if you’re reading this article.

If you’re the owner of a few textbooks that have done nothing but collect dust lately, you’re probably not going to use them much after the exam - or possibly at all. Methods for studying vary greatly, but they all share a common goal: simplifying the process of memorizing how the human body works. This simplification is important for recall and augmentable by technology. Something you’ll probably never have during revision week is a whole day without going digital at least once - it’s so accessible and straightforward that checking social media or the news can be done during a study break.

Keeping your energy levels up is one of the most important tips for studying, so it makes sense to conserve as much energy as possible by using the internet to your advantage. Memory recall has been shown to improve with consistent and personalised revision, available comprehensively at Kenhub for free with a short registration process. Strategic use of your resources will not only streamline and compound your learning but also alleviate your time, energy and wallet in the long term. So if you’re not using your textbooks, they could be exchanged for more helpful study tools and before exams is the best time to sell them.

Step two: Plan your study space and schedule.

Plan your study space and scheduleThe environment you study in is a large part of how effective your study will be. It’s important to have classmates for questions and discussions, but be wary of distractions or accidentally being told misinformation. Printing personal and course material from lectures, practicals and assignments is often helpful for direct revision and notation. Always try to ensure your study space has everything quickly accessible and you’re never stuck doing something unrelated for a long period of time. This means coordinating your study buddies and preparing snacks and stationery for your entire study session in advance.

It may seem counter-intuitive to spend valuable time doing this, but good preparation is key to effective learning. Perhaps even more important than a conducive environment is a personalised study schedule. If you aren’t targeting the areas of the course material that need your revision the most, then it’s going to impact on your exam score. Planning a schedule that shows what topics you’re going to study and when will ensure the wisest use of your time.

When applying these tips to learning anatomy & physiology, the scope of the disciplines mean that some of the topics will overlap and some will not. Teaching thus often uses a segregated approach organised by the localised region or functional system involved, meaning neighbouring structures like bones, muscles and ligaments - or features that work in concert such as the physiological cardiac cycle, anatomical vasculature and regulation of haemodynamics - are often best learnt together. But it’s important to not try and learn too much once, which leads us to our third and final step.

Step three: Learn the best way you can.

Learn the best way you canThe success of online educational platforms such as Duolingo and Kenhub lie in the proven learning model of spaced repetition. Just as music or fitness yields better results with frequent, consistent practice, reviewing course material is always much more effective when you study regularly compared to a panic-filled cram session. Other than giving you the comfort of learning at your own pace, spaced repetition also works because it is aligned with the biological mechanisms for memory consolidation and learning.

While this process is still not very well understood, research to date shows that short term memory - in the form of synaptic neurotransmitter levels - is stored in the prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead. Memories are then supposedly preserved by long term potentiation to affect protein levels in neurons and across synapses elsewhere in the brain, such as the hippocampus. The consolidation of short term memory into long term memory is proven to be aided by sufficient sleep, a healthy diet and emotional attachment to the memory. All of which are unlikely to be associated with cram sessions. Getting enough sleep and healthy food can be made a bit easier once you’ve planned ahead as in step two, but how can you possibly make your learning emotive? The answer is easy: find your passion in the topic.

As an example, let’s pretend you’re studying the gait cycle: the series of pelvic and lower limb muscle contractions and extensions that allow us to walk without fear of social humiliation or stumbling into a manhole. It’s usually taught by memorizing each muscle’s state of contraction at each phase of the cycle, but that level of tediousness is quickly forgotten. Generally speaking, professionals that have had to learn the gait cycle always take the same approach to remember it - they take steps. Within seconds, they can draw the answer from their own musculature.

One of the luckiest things about being a student of anatomy and physiology is that you live in your very own reference manual. While there is variation across individuals, the sciences involved in the study of the human body are almost always applicable to your own. You have your own flexible musculoskeletal system, cardiorespiratory cycle, gastrointestinal passage - the list goes on. By creatively making your study topics more personal by imagining what’s inside, explaining medical history or putting everyday habits in the context of your own biology, you can add emotion to your learning and passionately remember every topic in anatomy, physiology and more. The secret is in you. Literally.

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Show references


  • Ruch, S.; Markes, O.; Duss, B. S.; Oppliger, D. Reber; Koenig, T.; Mathis, J.; Roth, C.; Henke, K. (2012). "Sleep stage II contributes to the consolidation of declarative memories". Neuropsychologia 50: 2389–2396.
  • Page, K. C., Jones, E. K., & Anday, E. K. (2014). Maternal and postweaning high-fat diets disturb hippocampal gene expression, learning, and memory function. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 306(8): R527-R537.
  • Pegrum, M., Bartle, E., & Longnecker, N. (2015). Can creative podcasting promote deep learning? The use of podcasting for learning content in an undergraduate science unit. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1): 142-152.

Author: Joachim Torrano

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