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Improve your anatomy learning by reading effectively

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” - Benjamin Franklin

Although the vast majority of people understand the connection between acquiring knowledge, reading, and intelligence, very few apply the above wisdom of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Reading should be much more than a one sided conversation where the book teaches you, or even worse, simply telling you information. It should be an organic and engaging exchange of replies. It should be a conversation.

Involvement separates active and effective readers from passive ones. An excellent reader treats the interaction like a business investment. He or she previews the proposition at hand, keeps firing questions, analyzes answers, focuses on key aspects and summarises key figures. Any passiveness, daydreaming, and doodling results in a useless investment, which for a reader is time. If you are a student in third level education, time is already your enemy. If you are also learning anatomy on top of all that...

Luckily, reading is a skill which can be learned, altered, and improved. This article will explain the alienated concept of the effective reader, together with techniques that will help you join this elite group of individuals.


The Effective Reader

Unfortunately, the effective reader is the unicorn of third level education - possibly existent but never seen. The absence is unsurprising - such reader goes in, completes the task, gets out, and has time to do various other things. You will definitely not see him or her wasting time by reading the same thing twice!

What is effective reading? For anatomy and academic materials, such reading is reflected by selectivity, questioning, surveying, focus, and efficiency. By practicing it, reading will become much more than a familiarisation step because you will absorb and retain the information at a deeper level.


How can you become an effective reader? Like anything in life, you identify key characteristics or behaviours and try to emulate them when you read. Here are the aspects which demystify such elusive individuals:

  • Active reading
  • They analyze or evaluate if the text and reading meet their pre-established goals
  • Good readers preview the text, looking at the overall format, structure, headings, etc.
  • They try to predict what they are about to read
  • Reading is selective
  • Effective readers construct and revise created meanings while reading
  • They compare and integrate existing knowledge with the newly acquired one
  • They continuously monitor their understanding of the read material
  • Good readers vary and adapt their reading according to the type of text present in front of them
  • Processing continues even outside the actual act of reading

Common Reading Mistakes

Perhaps you have already tried to incorporate the above aspects into your reading, but for some reason it just doesn’t seem to get better. Improvement is actually a fine balance between eliminating mistakes and adopting more useful practices. Unfortunately, if you don’t get rid of mistakes, your reading will never improve significantly. It is similar to a wound; as long as dirt and impurities are present, it will continuously fester and heal incredibly slowly. You need to eliminate the following debris from your reading:

  • Superficial processing - According to studies, you are more than likely responsible for this mistake because most university students do it. It involves an implied agreement of the text and a consideration of information in an unlinked and independent fashion. It is true that your anatomy book has been used by many generations and it is almost entirely accurate, but don’t switch off your brain when reading it. To promote in-depth understanding and longer retention, start processing the information deeply by adopting the above buzzwords describing the effective reader!
  • Reading everything the same way - Regardless if it is your favourite fiction book, a newspaper, research paper or anatomy textbook, you read them the same way. While opening the relevant pages and reading robotically can work when reading for pleasure, it does not work with anatomy and vice-versa. If you want to be happy with the result, you need to fit the tool to the practice!
  • Highlighting incorrectly - Ironically, highlighting is like reading; almost everyone practices it, but very few know how to do it properly. Think back to the last time you highlighted. If you do it like most of the students, almost every line and sentence was marked. It looked like the sun was rising from your page. At the end of the day, highlighting should reduce the amount you need to reread in the future. If almost everything is marked, how did it really help you?

Incorrect highlighting

  • Not previewing/skimming - This is the seed of the majority of your reading mistakes. How many times do you open your anatomy book and start reading about a topic without having a clue about the structure of the chapter? Probably every time. Prior to diving at the deep end, it is crucial to get a feel of the section. Look at the headings, subheadings, bold words, and read ‘in layers’ (more details later). It will prevent the exaggerated highlighting and notes piling up because you will be able to discriminate the information. Every word seems important the first time you read the chapter, so put the highlighter or pen down and skim because “preparation is the key to success” (Graham Bell, inventor of the first practical phone).
  • Ignoring summaries - Many students skip summaries entirely, nevermind reading them effectively. They usually contain the bottom line, which is the information you need to know for the future. Are you certain you want to skip such a goldmine of information?

SQ3R Method

You now know what you should strive for in terms of reading and more importantly, what you should avoid like the plague. However, going from zero to hero can be quite confusing, especially with so many characteristics describing the ‘perfect’ reader. A powerful and useful reading strategy that incorporates many of those aspects is the SQ3R method. This is how you can use it:

Step 1: Survey - This involves previewing or skimming your desired chapter in your anatomy textbook. Look for anything eye-catching, like, headings, sub-headings, diagrams, tables, summaries, etc. Identify the overall organisation of the topic and read ‘in layers’. How do you do this? As the name implies, you read certain types or ‘layers’ of information. Specifically, you read the first sentence of each paragraph and read any sentences containing at least one bold word. Just remember, it is a PRE-view so don’t spend a long time doing this.

Step 2: Question - This step allows you to get your foot in the door and really start to read effectively. As you preview, ask yourself as many questions as possible. Try and transform each heading into a question, formulate questions you expect the text to answer, create future exam questions, etc. Essentially, be a curious five year old child who is constantly looking for answers.

Step 3: Read - You familiarised yourself with the content and now it is time to tackle it. However, don’t simply plough through it until the end! Divide it into managing chunks of approximately one to two pages. Try and answer your previous questions and deeply process what you are reading. Try and fit it into your existing web of knowledge. Make an outline or take notes. You can also highlight, as long as you do it properly. To mark correctly, avoid highlighting entire sentences, chain words together to form new ‘sentences’ and put down the highlighter when you preview. You can see an example of correct and ‘educational highlighting’ in the next paragraph. Simply read only the italics words in order!

Step 4: Recite - This involves recalling what you have just read. Close the book and start explaining what you have just read in the previous two pages (this is actually active recall, an essential principle for any learner!). The easiest way to do this step is using the “2,1,0 method” (there are a lot more here!). After you finish your explanation, you quickly glance at your anatomy book and score yourself - a “2” if you remembered most of the information, “1” if it was about fifty-fifty and “0” if your attempt was terrible. This method is basically a quick test. Remember to connect the ideas, simplify the concepts and use your own words rather than pure recitation.


Step 5: Review - This step is more of a constant and ongoing process that you need to do, especially for a fact filled subject like anatomy. Revise the notes that you took and try to answer the questions that you formulated at the beginning. In terms of a long-term plan, good methods to revise would include Kenhub’s learning strategies and quizzes. Specifically designed to learn and test all your anatomy knowledge, your learning will certainly skyrocket from using them. Do you want to see the most common learning mistakes to avoid when studying this subject, or revise the heart using active recall and spaced repetition? Go and have a look, they're all waiting for you!

As you can see, reading effectively is extremely important for learning anatomy. Fortunately, you can do it quite easily by avoiding some common pitfalls, adopting a few new habits, and using a specifically designed method like the SQ3R. Don’t be someone who takes reading for granted because by improving it, you can unlock your true learning potential.


  • Involvement and engagement are two aspects separating effective readers from passive ones. Luckily, they can easily be incorportated into your reading by doing it actively, analyzing and evaluating the text, previewing, being selective, continuously constructing and revising, comparing, integrating and adapting. 
  • You also have to remember that getting rid of your mistakes is crucial in order to significantly improve your reading. You should avoid processing the material superficially, reading everything the same way, highlighting too much, not previewing/skimming and ignoring summaries.
  • One method that can turn you into an effective reader is the SQ3R method. It involves five main steps - surveying, questioning, reading, reciting and reviewing.
Show references


Article, Review and Layout:

  • Adrian Rad
  • Franchesca Druggan


© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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