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Anatomy and Physiology – How Hard Is It Really?

A Human Anatomy and Physiology course is a prerequisite for those studying to be doctors, nurses, or almost any other medical career. The course is considered to be the most difficult of all pre-medical requirements.

Anatomy and Physiology is a hard college course because it requires extensive knowledge of anatomical terms and a thorough understanding of bodily functions. A good memory and rigorous studying are a must to do well in this course. The difficulty of the course leads many students to withdraw.

This article describes the types of things included in an anatomy and physiology course. Then compares it to other challenging courses, Microbiology, Physics, and Chemistry, to put it into proper perspective.  Read on to find out more.

Why Is an Anatomy and Physiology Course Hard?

Anatomy students learn the parts of the body and their structure. It includes the identification of the body’s systems and their relationships to each other. In Physiology, students learn how the parts of the body function and work together. 

Anatomy and Physiology is considered hard because the volume of material presented throughout the course requires the student to spend several hours per week understanding and memorizing the information. Students are strongly encouraged to attend every class and take meticulous notes. 

Source: National Public Radio

Anatomy and Physiology course difficulty explained.

Students who are not dedicated or do not know how to study may find these classes more challenging than others they have taken. If the student is taking other demanding courses in the same semester, they might not perform as well as taking Anatomy and Physiology with less complex classes.  

The course is considered difficult because of the number of students who fail or withdraw from it. The failure rate nationwide is estimated to be between 30% and 40%, maybe as high as 50%. 

The rate varies from college to college, but the high level of withdrawals has some administrations concerned.

Source: CIP Courses

What You Learn in an Anatomy and Physiology Course

The course teaches about the body’s structures and 11 organ systems and how those structures and systems function. 

There are many facts about the body students must learn. Memorization is the only way to understand them. Students must remember an organ’s name, purpose, function, and relationship to other organs. In addition, they must understand how systems relate to each other. 

The following information provides an idea of the type and quantity of material the course presents. It is not complete and does not fully describe each system’s content.

Musculoskeletal System

The musculoskeletal system is the skeleton and muscles, including joints, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Muscles work with the skeleton to create the body’s motion to get from one place to place. There are 206 bones and about 600 muscles in the human body. 

Some bones contain bone marrow. One type of marrow is responsible for producing red blood cells. The other kind of marrow is fatty tissue.

The three types of muscles are smooth, skeletal, and cardiac. The musculoskeletal system includes the skeletal and smooth muscles. Only the skeletal muscles can move the body.

Immune System

The immune system’s job is to protect the body from disease, parasites, cancer cells, and other harmful objects. It can recognize the body’s healthy cells from the diseased or foreign cells. 

It adapts and quickly learns how to fight off new foreign threats and recognize threats it has previously fought. 

Lymphatic System

The lymph system protects the body by producing white blood cells to attack and destroy foreign threats such as bacteria and viruses that enter the body. It collects the excess fluid from cells and puts it back into the bloodstream, and recirculates it. This process helps the body maintain fluid levels.

It absorbs fat from the intestinal fluid, picks up cell waste products, and then delivers them into the bloodstream.  

Respiratory System

The organs that allow the body to breathe make up the respiratory system. The lungs are the principal organs of the system and have millions of air sacs called alveoli. The system also includes the airways and the respiratory muscles needed to pump air into the alveoli.

Digestive System

The human digestive system’s responsibility is converting food into small molecules for distribution to cells. 

The system includes the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, rectum, and anus. There are three stages of digestion; it begins in the mouth and finishing with the intestines.

Nervous System

The network of cells that make up the nervous system transport messages from the brain to other parts of the body. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system consists of the Somatic and Autonomic nervous systems.

The somatic nervous system has nerve fibers that pick up and carry signals from peripheral organs, like the hands, to the brain. Nerve fibers in the brain that pick up these signals are also part of the somatic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system controls organs a person does not have control over. Breathing, heartbeat, and digestion are examples of organs controlled by the autonomic nervous system.

Endocrine System

The endocrine system produces hormones that regulate the body’s physiology, such as sleep, growth and development, metabolism, and mood. The system is active from the moment of conception and throughout your life.

Organs that produce hormones include the pancreas, testes, and ovaries. Glands include the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal. 

The hypothalamus acts as the control center for the endocrine system. The organs and glands within this system secrete hormones delivered to parts of the body through the blood. 

Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system, also known as the circulatory system, is where blood moves throughout the body. It includes the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. 

Its purpose is to, using blood, carry oxygen, hormones, and nutrients to cells. It takes waste products, like carbon dioxide, as well.  The system maintains body temperature and is responsible for clotting wounds. 

Urinary System

Kidneys, ureters, bladder, and ureters are the organs within the urinary system, also called the renal system or urinary tract. 

The kidneys remove waste from the blood through filtering, along with excess water. The collected waste, called urine, passes to the bladder through the ureters. When the bladder is full, it signals the brain to have the urine expelled from the body. 

Reproductive System

Male and female external and internal reproductive organs make up the reproductive system. Children are born with their reproductive organs. When they reach puberty, the hypothalamus stimulates the ovaries and testes into producing estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. 

The increase in hormones causes males to start producing sperm and females to start ovulation and menstruation. The body also develops other sex characteristics. Females develop breasts, wider hips, and an increase in height and weight. The male also grows taller, his voice deepens, shoulders broaden, and facial hair grows.

The reproductive system can be affected by many different diseases. They range from ovarian cysts to sexually transmitted infections. Virtually every part of the reproductive system can be affected by cancer.

Integumentary System 

The integumentary system includes items that cover the body. The skin is the largest organ in this system which also includes hair and nails. The skin has two layers of tissue, epidermis, and dermis and four types of cells. The keratinocyte is the predominant cell type; it produces keratin that forms nails.

Source: Wikipedia: Human Body

Is Anatomy and Physiology Harder Than Microbiology?

Compared to Anatomy and Physiology, Microbiology is less familiar to more students and often considered to be hard and slightly more complex. Both of these courses present a lot of material, and students must depend heavily on their ability to retain information via memorization. 

Source: Will Peach MD: Is Microbiology Hard?

In Microbiology, students learn about microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, and viruses, to name a few. It includes details about the organisms, such as their metabolism, growth rate, and the positive or negative impact on the human body. 

Microbiology is similar to Anatomy in that there are volumes of material presented. The information students study is weighty in detail. Students must understand and memorize a long list of facts about microscopic organisms. 

It may be the first time some students hear about the concepts and terminology taught in microbiology. For students who have already taken a biology or chemistry class, microbiology may come easier. 

Since students learn about microscopic things, some may find microbiology more challenging to visualize than anatomy and physiology.

Is Anatomy and Physiology Harder Than Physics?

The Anatomy and Physiology course is harder than Physics for some students than it is for others. Students who can understand the process of physics seem to do better in physics than those who don’t. It’s an “either you get it, or you don’t” concept.

Source: Wayne State University

In the healthcare field, Physics includes diagnostic imaging, nuclear medicine, and radiation therapy. Radiology includes diagnostic imaging, which involves technology like x-rays, ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Nuclear medicine uses radioactive substances for diagnosing and treating disease. Radiation therapy determines the appropriate treatment for cancer patients.

The difficulty associated with Physics is tied to the required ability to apply numbers to abstract concepts. Unlike Anatomy, it doesn’t help only to memorize the material; you need to understand and have the ability to apply what you learned. 

In most classes, the object is to get to the problem’s correct solution. In Physics, getting the right answer is less important than understanding the steps to arrive at that solution. Often, students concentrate more on the response and not enough on the process to get there.

Is Anatomy and Physiology Harder Than Chemistry?

Anatomy and Physiology may seem more manageable than Chemistry if, as a student, you’re more apt at absorbing volumes of information. If logic is more your forte, then Chemistry is less challenging.

Source: The Geo Exchange

The study of energy, matter, and their interactions describes Chemistry’s subject matter.

Some classify Chemistry as a gatekeeper class. It is a prerequisite for many other courses and can stop students from moving on in their selected career choice. The estimated failure rate of this class ranges from 25% to 60%, depending on the college.

Chemistry requires students to understand basic math and possess the ability to problem-solve. Without those, they could struggle to get through the class. 

The difficulty level increases because the material is presented at a much faster rate in college than in high school and is in greater detail. 

It is not easy to determine which class is more demanding because they focus on different aspects of knowledge. Anatomy requires memorization, while chemistry is logical thinking and deduction.

See my article on deciding if you should take chemistry before A&P.

Determining How Difficult an Academic Course Might Be for You

Measuring difficulty between courses can include many different factors. Some factors are more straightforward to quantify than others. It is better to consider less quantifiable aspects in generalities.

Perception and ability are significant factors when deciding the difficulty of an academic class. 

Some find Calculus easy, while others struggle with Algebra I, for example.

Difficulty could also be measured using students’ performance in the class. If students pass and withdrawal rates are easily comparable. Students’ class grades are also a measurement of performance.

There is one aspect to using student performance that research should take into consideration. If more than one professor leads a class, the approach each decides to take could impact the pass and withdrawal rates and grades. 

A student’s perception of the class’s difficulty is also a factor. 

A study to determine why a course is perceived to be more difficult than others concluded classes involving mathematics are perceived to be more difficult. The study also theorized courses generally thought to be more aligned with male-dominated careers are more difficult than those considered for female-dominated or family-oriented jobs. 

Source: Iowa State University

Final Thoughts

Comparing the difficulty between courses is complicated and cannot be consistently measured. Many of the factors are not easily quantifiable or comparable. In addition, each class/course has a different type of difficulty. Some require mathematics, one requires understanding abstract concepts, and others require a lot of memorization. 

The best idea is probably not to think about them in terms of difficulty. Instead, understanding they will require a lot of work and dedication could be the best way to make it through them.