By: Badyah Senussi
Want to know what would happen if your brain suddenly couldn’t communicate with your diaphragm and why? Or why divers hyperventilate before going into the water? What are the steps of an action potential?
Physiology will provide the answer to such questions. But to fully understand the mechanisms of the human body and how they compensate when steered away from a set point, loss of homeostasis, you will need to work hard.
Physiology is said to be one of the most challenging classes for a pre-med student. There may be moments when you’ll feel confused or overwhelmed; luckily, we have a list of the best and worst study tips to succeed in physiology that should help make it a more enjoyable experience.
You’ll find that in physiology there are many mechanisms and pathways. To better understand each reaction and visualize each step, drawing and redrawing are highly recommended. Using multi-colored pens as you draw will also help you visualize steps and better understand the consequences if one step was skipped.
It is best to read over chapters from a textbook or a chapter summary or even look over PowerPoints. The goal is to understand what the professor will be lecturing about and give yourself a chance to be familiar with new vocabulary.
For online classes, most professors record their lectures and post them. If professors allow you to record lectures, take full advantage of this. During lecture, you may miss important details because you are busy trying to write/draw notes. After the lecture, read over your notes and at a different time watch/listen to the lecture again while following your notes to add in any details you may have missed. Revisiting your notes is a great way to understand the material and start to study for the upcoming exam.
Best Tip #4: Go to Office Hours
The world of physiology can be a complicated place, but you have professors who are there to answer any questions you have. You don’t have to only go to your designated professor; as long as you’re polite, you can also go to other physiology professors simply to introduce yourself and ask a few questions. This is a good way for them to get to know you and for you to be more comfortable communicating with them.
Best Tip #5: Use Practice Exams
An excellent way to assess whether or not you have mastered physiology material for an upcoming exam is to take practice exams. Some exams could be from your professor; this is a great way to get to know your professor’s exam style and an opportunity to ask questions during office hours. You can also assess your knowledge by answering questions at the end of a chapter from a physiology textbook. Another way is to take online practice exams like The Physiology Quizzes, AAMA - Anatomy and Physiology Questions, and Physiology Practice Questions.
Best Tip #6: Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health
It is imperative to take breaks from any study material. One strategy is to give yourself a 10-minute break for every hour of studying. But if you find yourself frustrated and no longer able to focus, this is your body telling you that you need a break, so make sure to watch out for signs of burnout. Place all study material in your closet, go on a walk, watch a movie, make some cookies, and indulge in self-care. Also, don’t be afraid to talk about your frustrations among classmates. Chances are, they’re feeling the same way. Knowing you’re not the only one feeling stressed out is comforting.
This cannot be said enough: procrastination is by far the worst possible study strategy, not only for physiology, but for any course. You need to take the time to review the material, rewatch/relisten to lectures, rewrite notes, draw, ask your professor questions, and complete practice exams - all of which are impossible to complete the night before.
Study groups can be a hit or miss. If you find yourself leaving a study group session with a better understanding of the material and feeling more confident about an upcoming exam, then you had a successful study session. But if you find yourself more confused than you were before or notice that you are answering a majority of questions and leaving with the same amount of information, then that study session was not beneficial to you. From there, you should either continue to study alone, find a different study group, or make sure everyone in the group has completed some amount of studying. That way, everyone can contribute.
Any pre-med course will require memorization of a vast amount of knowledge. The real question is whether you understand what you're memorizing. Are you able to figure your way through complicated scenario-based questions?
Once you begin taking upper-division classes, you'll notice professors no longer test you on definitions alone. They expect you to know the definition and be able to apply it to a question. This is where some students start to have issues. You are not only required to regurgitate information, but to use it. The best way to combat this problem is to paraphrase definitions that work best for you so that you don't lose time thinking of a definition word for word during an exam.
If you are trying to memorize a long pathway/mechanism, think of it as telling a story. For example, let's focus on osmosis. The definition of it is the movement of water molecules from a solution with a high concentration of water molecules to a solution with a lower concentration of water molecules. This is a lengthy definition. Instead, think of it as the water going where the party is (party meaning a higher concentration of solutes).
For osmolarity, the concentration of osmotically active particles in a solution may be quantitatively expressed in osmoles of solute per liter of solution. Again, lengthy definition, so let's paraphrase. Osmolarity is focused on comparing the amount of 'stuff' (solute) in a solution and helps compare the concentration of 'stuff' (solute) between two solutions.
Then there's tonicity, which is the ability of a solution to change the shape or tone of cells by altering the cell's internal water volume. We can think of this as tonicity describing the shape of the cell after water movement occurs if the water moves at all. Again, a great way to visualize this is to draw it out and think of the paraphrased definitions simultaneously (fun picture below).
As you go through your academic career, you will find a specific study strategy that works best for you and stick to it. But as you advance further and begin to take more challenging classes like physiology, you may need to change your strategy.
Many students find flashcards to be helpful, but physiology is full of pathways, so flashcards may not be the best in this case. As stated before, try to think of any pathway as a story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Try to recite this story either to a friend or in the mirror. You can draw said pathway and label any features involved as a fill-in-the-blank diagram, and on a separate piece of paper, write down all the steps and names of features; it will act as a key. An example of this can be seen in the two pictures below.
Overall, be willing to change study strategies that work best for you and be as time-efficient as possible.
It is highly recommended to create a list of goals the night before the next day. Some students’ downfall is creating too long of lists or attempting to complete an enormous task in one day. This leads you to feeling overwhelmed and becoming unfocused, and then you find yourself completing nothing from the long list by the end of the day. You need to create a list that works well with your pace, add the amount of time you would like to spend with each goal, and reward yourself after accomplishing each goal.
The first step of tackling any challenging course is to come up with a plan of attack. This should start to develop within the first few weeks of the course after you get an idea of the material and the amount you need to know. Keep in mind that study strategies can differ from course to course, so you need to remain flexible.
Physiology is captivating and enlightening. The mechanisms of the human body and the number of reactions and pathways taking place right now as you read this are astounding and fun to learn. Remember to always ask questions and try not to fall behind. Best of luck!
About the Author:
Badyah Senussi is a graduate of California State University, Sacramento, with a B.S. in Biomedical Science. During her time at university, she was a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) Facilitator, where she ran a classroom of students, helped them complete worksheets (specifically in physiology), and held office hours. Her ambition is to become a physician with a focus on mental health. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, baking, and writing jokes in hopes of doing stand-up comedy someday.