The Anatomy Process: Part One

Hi guys! Hope you’re all doing well and living your best life! I wanted to introduce the first part of a three-part series I’m writing on how I’ve honed my process of doing anatomy through my time in my first two years of medical school. This part is on how to actually learn and understand the concepts involved. Hope you enjoy!

Learning and Understanding

“The branch of science concerned with the bodily structure of humans, animals, and other living organisms, especially as revealed by dissection and the separation of parts.”

– The Oxford Dictionary

There’s no question that a solid foundation in anatomical knowledge will take you very far in medicine, seeing as it’s the basis of the structure of the body. I know there’s a general idea among medical students that the detailed anatomy we have to learn is only for the sake of exams and is clinically irrelevant unless you choose to specialise in surgery, but I personally think that the more knowledge you’ve accumulated about bodily structures, the more confident you can be when treating.

Regardless of your opinion on anatomy (and I know, people have very strong opinions on this branch of science), it’s an integral part of any medical degree, and rightly so. I can’t speak for any other medical school, but at Manchester it comes up in OSCEs quite significantly in pre-clinical years and also multiple choice exams throughout the whole five years.


From the beginning of my degree, anatomy notes have been the only notes I’ve consistently handwritten. I was under the impression that I’d be able to hand write all my PBL case notes too, but the sheer amount of paper and pens I’d go through doing that would make my carbon footprint too large for me to live a guilt-free life.

This semester, however, my feelings on the matter of handwriting anatomy notes teetered when faced with the masses of neuroanatomy riddled with complicated diagrams of the skull that I’m not talented enough to recreate, but we stayed headstrong and the determination managed to carry us through. And I only went through a single pack of fineliners (but bear in mind that these have kept me going since the end of high school, so I actually deserved to buy new ones).

I would highly recommend handwriting anatomy notes as opposed to typing them for a number of reasons:

  • You remember things better when you write them down. This is a scientific fact, but I’m not linking to any studies so probably take this with a grain of salt, but I know it’s a fact and it’s been my experience as well
  • Drawing the diagrams yourself makes you embarrassingly aware of how bad you draw so you stay humble, but more importantly, if you draw it badly then you’re more likely to remember it (i.e. I remember my skull looked like a neanderthal skull but I remember labelling the anterolateral and posterolateral fontanelles on its funny shaped head)
  • You can arrange your notes how you like and add things in all over the place, as I really struggle with making Word documents exactly how I envision them
  • Pen and paper is more conducive to drawing diagrams
  • You get to buy more stationery
The inside cover of my anatomy notebook: I like to write all the learning objectives down for every session on to flashcards which I’ve attached to the inside cover, just so I don’t lose sight of what I’m working towards.

A Step-By-Step Guide on Writing Notes

  1. Scope your subject – Before you do anything, you need to read your learning objectives, see what kinds of things you need to cover and in how much detail. Often, the degree of detail isn’t specified so you need to make that judgement for yourself, but it’s very important to know exactly which part of the body you’re going to be focusing on and whether it’s bones, joints, muscles, neurovasculature or everything in a certain area. It can be helpful to write your learning objectives down somewhere so you can bear them in mind as you make your notes
  2. Acquire your sources – Textbooks, the internet, anatomy atlas videos; the choice is endless, and this can be more overwhelming than helpful, especially early on in the course. I would suggest starting with a reading list if your uni provides one and initially using the anatomy textbook/s they recommend. From there, once you progress through anatomy, you can see what kind of resources are helpful for you. I know people who use anatomy atlas videos (namely Acland’s) and make notes straight from there, whereas I prefer to watch them before my anatomy sessions after I’ve been over everything to really consolidate what I’ve already learned.
  3. Start your notes – Can you believe how much work goes into anatomy even before you’ve started your notes?! But here we are- go ahead, put that nice big title on your page, underline it and smile at it in pride. Now, I’m the type of person who likes to write notes to significant detail and then after I’ve finished them, I’ll go back and highlight the important bits so I can come back to them quickly. That means this is the painstaking part of the process as you try and condense pages upon pages of textbooks into your own notes. I can’t tell you how many hours of semester three I’ve spent head down over my Pukka Pad trying to wrap my head around neuroanatomy, but I assure you it’s a whole lot.
  4. Draw your diagrams or print your pictures as you go along – One of my friends briefly showed me her anatomy notes the other day and there were gaping holes of empty paper space where she’d written in pencil which pictures she needed to print out and stick in there. It’s okay, we’ve all been there. I had this same issue in first year which was why I moved to mostly drawing my own diagrams this time round. But I cannot stress enough the importance of doing this as you go along because the work builds up so quickly and it overwhelms you before you have the chance to go back and actually finish anything you said you’d do “tomorrow.”

Now What?

That post-notes, pre-session time period is crucial to actually understanding the content. This is where I go through my notes and add some colour into them. I know that highlighting and re-reading is not active learning and something you should avoid when it comes to actually trying to memorise content, but I find it such an essential part of this early phase. It’s also during this time that I watch the Acland videos so all my very two-dimensional learning can become a bit more three-dimensional. Normally, if he says anything I’ve not come across before then I’ll add it into my notes wherever I need to.

Generally, I try and highlight the big overarching concepts and main points that are trying to get across, and then use coloured pens to underline or put emphasis on finer details of these aforementioned concepts. I’ve never been big on colour-coding things all the way through (although one of my friends has a fantastic colour-code system for arteries, veins, nerves and lymphatic drainage) but the most I’ll usually do is highlighting similar muscle groups in the same colours or other lists. I just find doing this helps me to quickly skim over the most important points so I can be more time-efficient.

Moreover, a huge part of my understanding process comes from testing myself now. At this point, I don’t normally know any of the finer details associated with any topic, but testing myself allows me to see if I can actually articulate what I know. This sounds like such an obvious thing but I’ve always found with anatomy that I can picture what I’m talking about but I can’t always express it with accurate terminology. The way I test myself a lot of the time is by going to my university’s anatomy resource room, which has been an invaluable facility! They change the content every week according to whatever you’ve been learning that week and they have pro-sections and models out with questions testing your knowledge of the content.

Resource room tips and tricks:

  • Go with a friend! Testing each other and saying things out loud is infinitely better than silently testing yourself
  • Take a notebook. Make a note of anything you don’t know or need to look up
  • Find a time to suit you. Some people prefer to go before the session (like me), while others prefer to go and test themselves after the session. I think that all depends on how you like to learn, so I like to know the session’s content inside-out before I go into it so I can focus on seeing it in pro-sections and models, whereas others prefer to absorb the knowledge in the session and then test themselves after

I don’t think I can highlight the importance of something like the resource room enough. If you have similar facilities offered to you then I implore you to go check them out, as I remember the first time I went I was shocked at how useful it was.

That’s it, folks, this is the end of part one!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and please let me know if you have any questions about this first part of the process.

Stay on the look out for Parts Two and Three, which will be coming soon and will be highlighting subsequent parts of my anatomy process.

Big love for you all, if you’re revising for exams, I wish you the best of luck and every success!

Check out the rest of the series below

The Anatomy Process: Part Two

I’m back, better late than never, with the second part of my anatomy series. This part is based on methods to memorise anatomical knowledge, in particular for OSCE stations focusing on anatomy. Hope you’re all staying safe, staying at home, social distancing, and checking up on your friends. Memorising So I’ve always enjoyed learning for …

Continue reading The Anatomy Process: Part Two

4 thoughts on “The Anatomy Process: Part One

  1. Pingback: The Anatomy Process: Part Two – OK MALAIKAH

  2. Pingback: An Online PBL Case: Start to Finish – Made by Malaikah

  3. Pingback: The Anatomy Process: Part Three – Made by Malaikah

  4. Pingback: The Anatomy Process: Part Two – Made by Malaikah

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