Anatomy Lab Tests

The simplest way to make the best of anatomy lab exams

If you had to write the lab exam for your course, what questions would you ask and how would you set it up? Designing a lab exam is problematical. All instructors want their students do well on their lab exams. Yet, often students complain that the tests are “tricky.”

An insider’s guide to anatomy lab

Step 1: Look around – what to use for test questions?

Anatomic Model of Human Head

Does your lab have similar models? Photo copyright Tinydevil at

There are about as many ways to teach and test in an anatomy lab as there are anatomy instructors. Most instructors are limited by the equipment and the models that are on hand. What is available for your course?

Do you have charts, plastic models, an articulated skeleton, microscopes, and glass slides? Or, do you view your tissue slides on electronic boards?

Do you get to perform dissections of animal bodies with your own hands? Or are you shown videos of dissections?

Whatever is available to your lab for study is considered fair game for creating questions. If your lab has a model labeled similar to the illustration above, it would probably be a good idea to know the names that go with the numbers.

Step 2: Be there for all of the lab sessions

The only way to read your instructor’s mind about what may appear on your laboratory exams is to show up when the instructor is there. There are usually so many possibilities for questions that most instructors will try to lead you toward what they think are the key items you should know.

Watch closely and listen during demonstrations. If you don’t understand the point that is being made, say so. Better to ask a simple question than to appear to be dreaming about something else.

For which laboratory projects are you provided the most help? Is part of your grade going to depend upon whether you jump in and try things for yourself? Is part of the grade going to be a reflection of how well you work in a team with the other students? If you do not know, ask.

Step 3: Study the main body parts – do not try to memorize all of them

Cervical vertebrae

Can you name these vertebrae? Drawing copyright 5ciska76 at

If you are headed for any kind of medical training, now is the time to really focus upon getting right and left body parts clear in your mind. It will continue to come up. Get in the habit of naming the parts of the appendages as right and left.

Be able to identify the difference between a male and female pelvis. Pay particular attention to how the shapes of the vertebrae reveal where in the vertebral column they are found.

Few instructors insist that you learn the name of every human muscle. So, get a list of which muscles you need to know. The list usually includes the larger and easier to find muscles rather than the small deep muscles. Focus your study on the origin and insertion of the largest muscles on the list.

Also notice that muscles are named for the bones to which they are connected, and for the movements they create. Actually by the time you finish your anatomy course, you will recognize that sectors of the body are named in sets. The names of the muscles follow the names of the bones as do the blood vessels and nerves.

Step 4: Look for patterns in the tissue you observe under the microscope

For many this is the hardest part of anatomy laboratory. Getting a tissue section into focus under the microscope is a challenge. Then it is hard to recognize parts of the tissue without help from someone who already knows them. Do not feel bad that you cannot immediately see what you think must be there.

Even as Director of Research in my own laboratory, I often needed to enlist the help of a pathologist to understand what I was seeing in a particular tissue. Now there is a pathologist, Dr. John Minarcik, who has placed a wonderful series of videos on YouTube to help us all understand tissue sections. To find a list of his short videos, go to the page on this site titled Human Tissue Histology. They are short and you will be surprised by how much they help.

Step 5: Animal dissection – proceed cautiously

If you are to do this with your own hands, treat the body of your animal cadaver with respect. This was once a living creature who will now share with you the beauty of how its body was created.

Muscles will probably be dissected first, and they are held together by tough tissue. It is better to pull apart the connective tissues around muscles than to cut at random with a knife or scissors.

Cadaver muscles are never as distinct as shown in plastic laboratory models or in the pictures of your book. In fact actual muscles tend to be finer and flatter. They will separate cleaner and tear less if you tease them apart with your fingers.

Remember also that the blood vessels and nerves run in vascular bundles together through the muscles. If you become careless with the scissors blood vessels and nerves may no longer be there when you need to find them. Nerves will appear to be white strings in the tissue. Blood vessels and nerves run together in vascular bundles.

Most Important

Discover the part of the information that your instructor hopes you will learn.

Even medical specialists do not know every part of the human body in precise detail. A medical doctor who is an expert at hip joint surgery will spend little if any time studying the latest techniques for heart surgery.

Once you become aware of the specific anatomy you need to study, try to prepare some questions about it yourself. How would you select the most important items for testing?

I hope these suggestion help you get past the nervousness that these exams cause. You may also find information on the following posts and pages helpful.

Human Body Muscles

Orientation in Anatomy

Human Tissue Lab Practical Exams

Medical Language Translation

If you have more suggestions for your fellow students, please leave a comment below. These exams cause great anxiety, because there appears to be so much to remember. A key strategy is to narrow down the possible questions in advance of the exam.

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