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Write Riddles to Help Vocab Terms Sink In

How one professor uses a poetic approach to help students in her Human Anatomy course memorize and retain the names and functions of numerous body parts.


Danielle Varney, MPAS, PA-C

Clinical Coordinator, Physician Assistant Assistant Professor in Human Anatomy, Touro College

MS and BS in Physician Assistant Studies

Rhyming is memorable.
Poems are memorable.
I want my human anatomy lesson to be memorable.

That’s what Professor Danielle Varney thought when she was contemplating how best to teach the subject of human anatomy to students at Touro College. Then she learned she had an added burden to shoulder: She would be teaching the course without cadavers, which are the go-to visual aid for anatomy lessons. It didn’t take long for Varney to arrive upon a poetic solution.

“When I think back to myself as a student, I think of medical mnemonics for heart murmurs and nerves,” says Varney. “I had a ton of complicated names to memorize, and putting them to rhyme helped me so much.”

Even today, when asked if she remembers any mnemonics from the grueling curriculum to become a physician assistant, Varney responds as if accompanied by a slow drum beat: “Oh, oh, oh, to touch and feel very good velvet. Such heaven!”

It turns out she has immediate recall of her device for remembering the cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, vestibulocochlear, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, hypoglossal.

If necessity is the mother of invention, it may also be the sibling of innovation. Varney went into innovation mode, drew on her past experience and passion for poetry, and created a game that gives students a leg up when studying the human body.

Challenge: Teaching body parts without an actual body

“I knew that bodies aren’t as available as they once were, since fewer people are interested in donating to science,” Varney says. “So there’s high demand and low supply.” What’s more, her physician assistant school, like many others, has moved away from using human bodies for anatomy classes and toward the use of virtual reality computer models.

As with any institution, there are also budgetary constraints. “I want hearts and kidneys and alcohol and water and toothpicks and a $6,000 human physiology kit, so we can evaluate EKGs and EMGs to find how muscles polarize and depolarize,” she says. As she evaluated her wish list, she had an aha! moment: Words are free.

Her ability to create a fantastic lesson depended less on finances and more on her ability to tap into an old passion: poetry.

Innovation: Creating a poetry game to spur learning and retention

When Professor Varney took the helm of this course, she didn’t want to settle for the typical slides and traditional lecture format, which involves the instructor talking (mostly) and the students listening (hopefully). “I know that not everyone wants to look at slides of cadavers all day and be lectured at,” says Varney. “I wanted to get students more engaged. I see a lot of student apathy, and I feel that we, as educators, need to get more creative in how we get our messages across.”

Example "What am I?" riddle

You can find me in the radial groove

I help to make your thumb move

Unless the humerus breaks in the middle

I couldn’t even play second fiddle.

What am I?

(Answer: radial nerve)

Her lesson — called “Upper Extremity: Find Me” — includes four-line poems (written by Varney), each of which provides clues to a different body part (in this case, those in the arm), ending with the question, “What am I?” The approach is unconventional, to be sure. But it provides an active learning component to a class that’s famous for its reliance on rote memorization.

Since Varney’s students are going to be physician assistants, it’s also important for them to connect anatomy with clinical conditions, she adds. Not only does this poetry game engage students in a cadaver-free class, it also helps them make such correlations and forces them to do research on their laptops as they hunt for clues — another skill that will serve them well throughout their college career and beyond.


Course: GSBN 222, Anatomy and Physiology
Frequency: One 2.5-hour class meeting per week for 12 weeks
Class size: 45 students
In her words: “Students in this course are getting the basic anatomy the school requires them to learn to get their degrees. But one of my big goals is to help them make correlations that will help them down the road when they get into their medicine courses. I am setting the framework that will help them when they actually work with patients.”

GSBN 222, Anatomy and Physiology

See materials

Lesson: Anatomy of a poetry-riddle game

Varney started her “Find Me” lesson in September 2016 and has used it successfully in two classes thus far. When she introduced it, the students laughed at first. But soon they loved it and relished the chance to compete against each other. While Varney designed the lesson to take 30–45 minutes, she made it more fun by awarding prizes for the first five students to finish. The prizes? Why, pens shaped like bones, of course.

When Professor Varney considers what she’d tell another educator who wants to carry out the same lesson, these suggestions spring to her mind:

Tap into old passions to add life to old lessons

“I have a passion for words, but other teachers might have a passion for something else they could then use to develop their lessons and activities,” says Varney. She put her “Find Me” poetry lesson together in two or three hours, but her quick turnaround happened because she knew both poetry and anatomy so well.

Recognize which topics need a “shot in the arm”

Be selective and think about where you need a creative, engaging approach the most. “My ‘Find Me’ lesson is an example of a lesson best used in a classroom where students aren’t as engaged as you want them to be,” she says. “Depending on how engaged your students are and how engaging the material you’re teaching that day is, you may want to save a creative lesson like this for another time.”

Let them take the lesson home

Accelerated classes may make it harder to find time to add in a “fun” exercise. “Even if you don’t teach the entire lesson in the classroom, you could offer it as homework or a pre-lesson — or just bring the ideas in the lesson to life by talking about them and using the wording of the poetry yourself, rather than having the students take time to research and name the body parts.” Simply opening students up to another mode of studying can help them across the board in their classes.

Don’t rely on just one lesson

“Every class is different,” says Varney. “Have a variety of lesson plans prepared for each class, so you can pull out and use the one that will best serve the needs of the class. You may not know which one will work best until you are actually with [the students]. I often have up to three lesson plans I can use when I walk in the door.” After a few minutes of the class, Varney will gauge everyone’s engagement and energy and decide which activity to use that day. “I sense the vibe and whether they seem comfortable with the basic material.”

Let the beginnings of burnout motivate you to innovate

“Everyone has a different style of teaching,” says Varney, “but for an educator whose satisfaction scores aren’t as high as they should be, or for someone who’s been teaching the same material for years, I’d suggest — in a nice way, of course — that they consider trying something new to snap them out of the status quo.” This ties nicely into Varney’s first tip: Facing the challenge of connecting your coursework with a hobby or interest can really get your creative juices flowing and make you more excited to go to the head of the class.

As Professor Varney considers creating new lessons, she thinks back on past classes, reviewing her evaluations to see what students said and whether liked her approach or not. That helps her create and modify lessons for the next class.

Complications: Avoiding pushback, even about pig hearts

It’s ironic that Varney adopts unorthodox approaches to teaching at Touro College–an orthodox Jewish institution.

“I want to respect the school’s history, focus, and all of its students, who come from a mix of backgrounds and religions,” Varney says. “I want to push the limits without offending anyone, and the goal is always how best to convey the material.”

So far, so good. There’s been no pushback from administrators, teachers, or students.

“But to be safe, if I have any questions about any of my material, I run my class activities and materials by our program director,” she says. “That way, I can have checks in place to make sure the material isn’t questionable or too far out there.”

An example of respecting the institution occurred when Varney wanted to use actual animal organs for a class demonstration, which is standard for an anatomy class.

“I wanted to buy hearts, but only pig hearts were available,” says Varney. “I wondered if pigs were OK to use for medical purposes if they aren’t OK for some Jewish students to eat. So I reached out to the program director and the school rabbi to see if was all right to use pig hearts. They both said it was fine. But better to ask the powers that be up front if there are questions.”


“Our department chairperson is looking for end results,” says Varney. “Do students score well in musculoskeletal care? The answer is, ‘Yes, they do.’ We score above the national average.”

Varney’s excellent track record is, perhaps, one reason why the school doesn’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of the curriculum (that is, dictating to her exactly how she should teach the material).

In terms of other outcomes, Varney doesn’t have to wonder whether students were more engaged by her “Find Me” lesson than they might have been by a slide photo. There are a number of ways her work is measured to ensure that she and her lessons are getting the job done.

First, her students complete evaluations at the middle and end of the course, and she gets rated on how well her instruction matches the learning objectives and whether she’s following the class syllabus. Program directors and college administrators review those evaluations.

Also, an academic coordinator reviews Varney’s tests and quizzes (for example, an end-of-class standard quiz of 10–15 questions related to human body). So she finds out whether her students are retaining the information they need to retain for test purposes.

Her teaching colleagues provide a valuable secondary form of feedback, as well.

“Since it’s a small faculty with five or six full-time and five or six part-time teachers, colleagues sit in when someone new starts teaching,” Varney says. “They want to evaluate your effectiveness as a teacher and they also want to see what you’re doing that’s keeping students engaged. They’ve seen my students immersed in the lesson and being vocal in class, and they have given me good feedback about putting in so many active learning components.”

“My program director sent me an email today,” says Varney. “It read, ‘If we continue on this trajectory, we’ll accomplish great things.’”

Student feedback

Perhaps best of all, students reach out to Varney directly and tell her they like her lessons. “In addition to hearing directly from students when they like something, one of my favorite measures of success is when students apologize afterward if they weren’t engaged in class,” says Varney. “It’s because they sense my good energy, and I take this as a sign that they are stepping up. One or two have even said, ‘I’m ready to participate more.’ That feels good.”

When a teacher like Varney makes a positive difference with a new, interactive teaching approach, it can open doors for others to follow. In terms of deeper student engagement levels, retention of material, and preparedness for clinical work, all students rise, just as all ships rise when the waters of their harbor grow deeper.

To borrow from Varney’s poetic approach, here’s what her students and colleagues might say, if they were inclined to speak in rhyme:

When eyes are glazing, it’s such a shame
To see students go online shopping
So I have the class play a poetry game
And watch their minds start hopping
What am I?

An excellent teacher.

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