Tips For Mastering Anatomy From Both Sides of The Classroom

The human body is beautifully intricate. A rite of passage for medical students, mastering anatomy lab provides an opportunity to explore and appreciate how nerves, muscles, epithelium, and connective tissue come together to form a living being. However, the sheer volume of testable information makes anatomy one of the hardest classes in the first year of medical school.

I have had the pleasure to experience anatomy from the perspective both of a medical student and of a teaching assistant for undergrads. I started by tackling the mountain of information alongside my undergrad students as they studied the bones and their markings, muscles (their origins, insertions, actions, and innervations), and nerves. Then I began my own class and from the initial cut to the final dissection, I vastly expanded my knowledge that in turn helped my teaching. In the process, I developed my understanding of how to mastering anatomy, which has made a world of difference. As another school year approaches, I’ve compiled my best tips to help all incoming medical students take on this great challenge.

Tip #1: Use the right resources

Your professor will likely assign a textbook for the class. Use it. We had Grey’s Anatomy for Students, which was helpful because it had an overview section in the beginning of each chapter that was a good place to start understanding the material. The book also has highlighted clinical correlations that were particularly good review for the written exam.

It was also suggested that we purchase an atlas. We had them available in lab, but it was incredibly helpful to have at home as well. While nothing can replace studying on actual cadavers and models, looking at images can be a good starting point, reference for clarification during or after hands-on learning, and last minute review before an exam. I used Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy.

Another resource that is helpful is actually Wikipedia. While teachers 99.9% of the time tell you to never use Wikipedia (using excuses such as that the information is unreliable), anatomy is the 0.1% of the time when it is an acceptable resource. We were told that anatomists have done a good job at maintaining the accuracy of these pages (though it is always important to cross check the information with your textbook or lecture notes, especially if your grading is as strict as the class that I teach). Therefore, I mostly used Wikipedia for my information because it provided everything I needed to know (and then some) about a structure and I learn best by putting things into a greater context. 

Tip #2: Spend time in lab, wisely

First of all, you need to spend time in lab. I repeat, YOU NEED TO SPEND TIME IN LAB. I simply cannot emphasize it enough. There was a noticeable difference in scores between those students who came in extra times to lab to learn the material and those who did not. Anatomy is a highly visual and tactile subject. You need to see the muscles/arteries/nerves/etc. to understand where they are in relation to other structures. While Netter’s and other anatomy books have pretty pictures, they cannot do the real human body justice. You need to look at both your cadaver as well as other bodies in the lab since you’re likely going to be tested on all of them. No two bodies look exactly alike, and it is important to appreciate that.

You also need to spend your time in lab WISELY. Come to lab during the extra hours with a plan of what you want to study and start with the things you know the least. While it’s nice to have a confidence booster by going through the things you know best, it takes away time from where you can be making the biggest leap in your understanding, which is the material you find more difficult. For me this was usually arteries and nerves – they can be hard to differentiate and there’s a lot of branching – so I would try to start with these areas and try to find all the structures on the list for those before moving on to topics that I knew better.

Tip #3: Have a study buddy

Nothing in the body exists in isolation. The most important part of anatomy is not just being able to identify individual structures but being able to understand their relations to each other. Learn to see how things are connected, whether through a direct interaction (i.e. this nerve innervates this muscle and thus runs along it) or indirect (i.e. this muscle lies next to this other muscle, and they are both innervated by the same nerve). By making these connections, it reduces the number of distinct pieces of information to retain. However, you cannot always see these connections on your own.

One of the best things I did was study with other people. Whether it’s your dissection group or other people in the class, find a group of who have a similar learning style as you. I’ve never been one to study with other people, but in anatomy this was essential. I was fortunate to be placed with a dissection group of smart and dedicated people who were both fun and hard working. We were thorough during our scheduled dissection times and often some of us would meet up at other times to go over our dissections.

The benefits of studying with others are many. For example, they probably know things that you don’t and vice versa. We would usually go through our structure list and take turns teaching or quizzing each other. By reading a term, saying it out loud, identifying it on a body, and having confirmation from another person, you are giving yourself more opportunities to have that information ingrained in your memory. Also, not knowing a term, being quizzed on it, and having someone explain it helps you learn from your mistakes. Of course, working together to figure out something neither of you know is also quite helpful.

Tip #4: Make your own study guides

I am a big fan of making my own study guides. I do this not only for anatomy but many of my other classes as well. Everyone learns information a little differently and by making your own study guide, you can display this information in the way that makes the best sense for you. Also, simply the act of writing things down (preferably by hand) is helpful for memorization.

Above is the table I made for my study guide to learn the muscles in the anterior compartment of the forearm (a connection between these 8 muscles – see #2). For most of my muscle tables, I only included the origin, insertion, action/function, blood supply, and innervation. However, I also included level (superficial vs. deep) to understand the relative location of these muscles since there are so many in this compartment. Having this information in a table is helpful to see the connections between structures. For example, you can see that the three muscles listed as being “deep” are also supplied by the anterior interosseous artery while those being “superficial” are supplied by the ulnar artery. This also hints at the location of these arteries.

With these tips in mind, I wish you the best in your journey through the human body! Remember what an honor it is to have this opportunity and enjoy every minute of it. This is one of your first big steps toward becoming a doctor!

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Hanna Erickson, "Almost" MD/PhD

Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at