Arrows, Tiaras, and the Pest of 6

“How many words are in the average person’s vocabulary, regardless of language?”  So reads my typical first-day-of-class bellringer. The question is really my students’ first group-building exercise, since each lab table answers as a team.  The class’s leaders and shrinking violets reveal themselves as I watch the deliberations.  We continue with a discussion of the importance of precision in anatomic language, especially for those who hope to be healthcare providers…virtually all of the students. This cartoon always gets a chuckle:

Thanks to bztoons!

For many of us, the very word “vocabulary” has some negative connotations…I remember spending absurd amounts of time in my third-grade class assembling tiny, sticky letter card words on my desktop…sheer drudgery.  A&P has so many words, a lot of them hard to pronounce and harder to spell.  How can we leverage some pleasure here? First, a bit of humor with more team-building. I ask students, “What do you call your smallest finger?  The place you were plugged into your mom? The place where the urine comes out?”  Then I ask them to picture using those words in a medical chart.  Point made.

Many students are unfamiliar with the word “mnemonic,” but most know how many days are in September and when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I explain that they are joining a club that uses a host of time-honored mnemonics, and I direct them to some websites where these can be found.  The “pest of 6” in this entry’s title helps us remember that there are 6 different bones that form the cranium of the skull: parietal, ethmoid, sphenoid, temporal, occipital, and frontal.  The parietal and temporal are paired, for a total of 8 bones.  The first day’s memory work can be done in five minutes!

I use a different technique to teach the sutures, or joints, that connect those bones.  “Sagittal” is a new word for most students. (Altogether now! One G, two T’s!)  Since, sadly, no one studies Latin anymore, the connection with “arrow” is lost.  But many students do know their astrological sign, so I show an image of Sagittarius, the archer, and another picture of William Tell shooting the apple from  his son’s head.  Picture the path of that arrow, and you know where the sagittal suture lies.

The coronal suture, which runs across the top of the head from ear to ear, calls for a more literal visual.  While many students know more about Corona cigars than coronal sutures, most have heard of a coronation.  The idea of a crown doesn’t quite get us home, because most of us picture a crown like the one worn by the recently retired Burger King.  To remind the class that in ancient times a crown was more like our tiaras, I don another dollar store find….actually they are 3 for a dollar.  Not long ago I received an email  that illustrates the value of the demo.  A former student, now enrolled in a physician assistant program, wrote to tell me that she was the only member of her class who identified the coronal suture “because I remembered your tiara.”  She went on to say that her new classmates seemed envious of her vocabulary…words to warm a teacher’s cold heart.

With just a little effort, I can help my students increase their vocabularies by engaging their senses, adding a bit of humor, helping them to feel part of a group, pulling out a few surprises, making the challenge achievable, and showing them the value of what they’re learning.

Oh, and the answer to that bellringer?  Find it by clicking this story at BBC News, which coincidentally features an example of a Wordle, yesterday’s Cool Tool.



One comment on “Arrows, Tiaras, and the Pest of 6

  1. Ken Casey says:

    Mnemonics and memory work have been all too neglected. Although I understand the criticism of memory work as drudgery, ineffective–there are just some things that have to be memorized so that they can be recalled quickly.—thanks Karen, BTW you look regal in the tiara

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