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 the sake of learning, but unfortunately you can’t just persuade your medical school “oh, trust me, I know that” and I guess rightfully so, because nobody wants their doctor to be a fraud. As such, it is just a vital part as any, to transfer all that great information you’ve now learnt and understood (see Part One!) to your long-term memory so you can always remember it. Or at least, remember it until your exam!

Also, I don’t mean to condone things like forgetting everything once you’ve done the exam, but my reality has been forgetting a huge amount of the nitty-gritty detail after an exam, and I understand if that happens to you as well.

Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards

I cannot reiterate to you enough, the magnitude of importance of the humble flashcard, especially for memorising details of anatomy. The level of unbothered I felt about the anatomy stations in the lead-up to the OSCEs was terrifying in hindsight, but completely warranted, because I was really, truly not worried about the knowledge due to my strict flashcard regime that I’d been following for months prior to it.

Let me break this down for you, to highlight the key parts of this process:

  • Make your own flashcards – It doesn’t work when you use pre-made flashcards, or ones that other people have made. A lot of the questions that I write myself are ones that only I can understand. Also having to condense it by yourself helps to identify holes in your knowledge.
  • Use spaced repetition to go through flashcards – I’ve used Anki since first year, and it has proven to be the most superior flashcard software that I’ve used (granted, I’ve not used that many) simply because it has spaced repetition built into it. More on Anki’s pros and cons a little bit later, though
  • Go through them every single day – No forgetting, no excuses, no days off. Beyond just making a difference in knowledge, nothing else could teach me discipline like forcing myself to do huge numbers of flashcards every single night. I remember in first year, I dedicated my study time just before I went to sleep for going over my flashcards, and I often ended up finishing them past midnight. This was ideal for me though, because I work so much better at night and I found it a very peaceful time to do this.

That’s truly all it takes. Obviously anatomy questions in the OSCE almost always have an identification component to them, and I guess that’s the one thing that you can’t really prepare for by memorising. For that, getting hands on with pro-sections and models is extremely important, and making the most of any time you get with these resources is a crucial part of anatomy success.

I want to now highlight some of the different flashcard software I’ve used and talk about their pros and cons.

ANKI

PROSCONS
Very easy to use with a simple user interfaceInterface is so simple, you might consider it unattractive
Lots of fun plugins available when you become an expert with Anki & there are a lot of cool featuresIt takes an awful lot of time to figure out all the plugins
Good statistics features on all your decks of flashcardsThe apple app is expensive (but the Android one is free!)
Spaced repetition is built into the system itself, which is great because you don’t need to worry about thatIf you don’t time it right, you end up doing huge amounts of cards in the lead up to exams, which is intense
It taps into your long-term memory, which I haven’t seen done before with flashcard software
A quick rundown of the pros and cons of Anki

As a flashcard software, I think Anki is one of the best out there because it does all the hard work for you! The way it brings cards back in a specific order to help you transfer all the knowledge to your long-term memory is a genius algorithm and doing it daily really, truly helps you to remember things. It works because every single card you get, you rate on how well you know it, and that dictates how quickly you’ll see that card again, so for example, if you rate a card as easy, it won’t show you that card for a few days, and the interval slowly increases every time you rate it as easy. I know it’s helped me long term because I’ve gone back to my very first few decks from first year and remembered so much because I did them so systematically once upon a time.

However, the closer you start a deck to exam season, the more you doom yourself, because of the way the algorithm works. Essentially, when you use the default settings, it introduces you to 20 new cards every single day on top of all the previous cards that you have to do for that specific day, according to the algorithm. As a result, you can end up having to do a lot of cards. I remember during exam preparation for semester three I was doing up to 90 cards a day, often starting awfully late & perpetuating an unhealthy cycle that I try to avoid during exam season.

As such, the only truly effective way to use Anki is alongside making the actual flashcards. I did this in first year and rejoiced when I had minor focused anatomy preparation for exams, but second year got the better of me and I pretty much made and did all my flashcards in the month before the exam. I mean, it wasn’t effective, but I can’t say it didn’t get the job done. I feel like Anki is an incredible tool to work smarter, not harder, but I’ve still found it so beneficial even when I used it in a way that wasn’t as effective.

One more significant point to make about Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to understand all the different functions of it. There are a lot of YouTube videos out there, fortunately, so you can definitely learn the features, but I never got round to it and I stuck to the basic flashcards as a result. I don’t think that’s necessarily negative, because it works great even with basic flashcards, but I’m the type of person who likes to dive deep into a platform and make the most of it, which I feel like I never managed to do with Anki.

An example of one of my Anki cards from semester three
One of the cool features of Anki I did learn how to use – image occlusion! So you can hide specific labels and the answer to one of your cards will be whatever is under the label. It behaves just like a regular card so you’ll be able to rate how well you knew the label.

QUIZLET

PROSCONS
Beautiful interface No spaced repetition
The app is free & super easy to useI found the games to be unnecessary, especially with questions and answers
You can import from Word documents if you already have questions madeToo much hassle, too many functions
You can ‘favourite’ certain cards and can go back to them after going through a deck
There are different games you can play relating to the deck content
A summary of the pros and cons of Quizlet

To me, Quizlet was nothing more than cutesy bells and whistles decorating a very basic concept. Not having spaced repetition, like I was used to having with Anki, was a huge deal-breaker for me with Quizlet, and I really couldn’t move past that because I didn’t feel like I was learning anything in the long run.

I am willing to say that I might not have given Quizlet a fair chance, but I feel like it may be better for other question types, in particular, having terms on one side and definitions on the other, because I feel like the games could really lend themselves well to those types of cards.

Something else that I initially found to be an advantage over Anki, but later turned out to be a disadvantage was the fact that there was an app that I could use (I haven’t yet invested in the Anki app). On one hand, I could go through my Quizlet decks on the go, and spent many public transport journeys with only my flashcards for company, but on the other, I felt like I began associating the Quizlet app with distractions. While I had a specific time and place where I went through my Anki cards, using Quizlet anywhere essentially became a problem for me because I didn’t have that intense focused time that I set aside for Anki. Obviously, that’s not Quizlet’s fault at all, and only my fault for getting distracted so easily, but it was an interesting issue that I came across.

An example of a Quizlet flashcard from a case in semester three, as opposed to from anatomy

So the verdict?

I think it’s clear that I prefer Anki, but honestly it all boiled down to the spaced repetition feature that’s built into it, as opposed to anything else. Quizlet was easily a much nicer user experience, but I got distracted easily and didn’t feel like it had the same power that Anki has.

However, despite everything I’ve said, the flashcard software is not a huge part of the process. If you can put a strong system in place for yourself and approach it with discipline, you can obtain the same results with any software, even by hand.

Edit: I did a little bit more research after I wrote this and realised Quizlet does have a spaced repetition feature but only on Quizlet plus, so you’d need to pay for that extra feature. For me, being someone who didn’t even invest in the Anki app (an app I know and like), I can’t see myself buying Quizlet plus either, but obviously that’s a personal preference.

More Tips and Tricks

  • Draw your own schematics and then redraw them from memory I am not the most talented artist and so a lot of my diagrams get reduced to arrows and flowcharts, especially for things like neurovascular supply of organs
  • Use mnemonics – You can make your own or use ones that already exist, as long as they stick somewhere in your brain, it doesn’t really matter which you use. Some people find it easier to remember things they came up with themselves, but sometimes the sheer number of concepts to remember can make it hard to think of your own for every concept
  • Mind palace memory techniques – We once had a lecture from an anatomy demonstrator last year in which he told us that he remembered things by using the mind palace technique. This involves going on a ‘journey’ in your mind around somewhere you know well and associating different objects along your journey with the things you need to remember. There are a lot of resources out there on the internet for this technique so definitely have a search if you’re interested. Personally, I’ve never used this to remember anything so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness
  • Flashcards – sorry, I have to reiterate one last time. Active recall and putting the effort in to remember facts is more effective than any technique I’ve ever come across. Making and keeping on top of flashcards changed anatomy revision for me completely

I think something that held me back a lot of the time during revision was my reluctance to actively remember information and making the effort to try before checking the answer. Changing this was the key to becoming so much more effective at revision, and I really hope you’ll have a go at it yourself.


Thank you all so much for reading Part 2, I hope this ode to flashcards has had some kind of impact on you.

Once again, I’m hoping that you’re doing well and that quarantine life is treating you fine.

Stay tuned for the third and final instalment of this series where I tackle how to answer anatomy questions in the OSCE station.

Sending you all lots of love, health and blessings!

Check out the other posts in the series below.

5 thoughts on “The Anatomy Process: Part Two

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