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Spark Lightbulb Moments with 7 Principles of Human Learning

Dr. Nelson H. Kraus shares tips from his new book, Super Simple Anatomy & Physiology, that jazz up any subject and make complex topics easier to absorb.


Nelson H. Kraus, MD

Associate Adjunct Professor of Biology, University of Indianapolis, IN

MD, MBA, MSc in Anatomy, BSc in Anatomy

Being a TV commentator is not so different from teaching, says Nelson H. Kraus, MD, MBA. Before becoming a biology professor, the former clinical practitioner served as an on-air radio and TV personality, deciphering complex health topics for lay audiences. Experience from his side hustle as a motivational speaker and stand-up comic helped him deliver the material with added zing.

“It was infotainment—health news in an entertaining format,” he says of his days in TV and radio. “If you didn’t hook the viewer in seven seconds, they were on to another channel. I had to conceptualize and simplify.”

That is exactly what he does in the classroom today to keep students engaged in a highly interactive class at the University of Indianapolis. “What appeals to me is being able to take complex topics and put them into a simplistic format that really facilitates learning, rather than mindless memorization,” he says. “I like the opportunity to help students evolve, see them grow, and see the light bulb go [on in] their head.”

Today, Kraus aims to facilitate active learning in courses such as Principles of Human Anatomy and its close companion, Principles of Human Physiology. For both, Kraus employs peer instruction (see sidebar) as well as seven principles he has developed and shared in his new 338-page textbook Super Simple Anatomy & Physiology: The Ultimate Learning Tool. He offers a quick summary of them (and how he puts them into practice) below.


“When you sit a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds down and then start to lecture to them, they’re not actively involved. And learning, like healing, is an active rather than a passive process.”

— Nelson H. Kraus, MD, MBA

Course: BIOL 103 Principles of Human Anatomy

Course description: Survey of the anatomy of the human body systems and tissues. Integrated lecture and laboratory experience.


See resources shared by Nelson H. Kraus, MD, MBA

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Kraus’s 7 key areas to human learning

In Super Simple Anatomy & Physiology: The Ultimate Learning Tool, Kraus notes that memorization is not a demon to be avoided entirely. “Let’s face it, memorization is an important part of learning anything!” he writes. But, as he has found in his life experience, it is not enough to facilitate deep understanding of material. Therefore, Kraus has developed seven additional learning practices that he feels encourage student participation and active learning: repetition, emotion, vocalization, visualization, association, concepts, and movement. Here, he shares why each is important and how he uses them in his own courses.

1. Repetition

“Repetition is the key to learning everything, from playing the piano to hitting a golf ball to learning to drive a car,” Kraus explains.

Example: He often kicks off classes with brief existing knowledge quizzes (EKQs). In these, he asks students questions based on concepts covered in a previous class.

2. Emotion

“Learning should be emotional and chaotic, like any other evolutionary process,” Kraus says. While he feels it is usually preferable to be happy in a learning experience, emotions such as frustration and anger are useful, too. What you do not want is boredom.

Example: He actually tries to be unpredictable in class. Sometimes he will mis-grade a quiz question. “I want to make them mad,” he says. When they come to him angrily and argue that they had the answer correct, he knows they are engaged and more likely to learn the material.

3. Vocalization

Kraus spent time in the military and feels that vocalization—voicing or talking about a topic—can help with memory and retention. “In basic training, there’s a lot of vocalization, with the drill instructor saying, ‘I can’t hear you! Say it again!’”

Example: In addition to having students discuss a topic one-on-one with a peer (see sidebar), Kraus also has students read aloud and voice their answers, sometimes even yelling.

Kraus’s Eureka Moment with Peer Instruction

Kraus admits that his class was not always so highly interactive and engaging, but he saw early on that the traditional lecture model did not help students retain information. “The more I talked, the less they heard,” he says. “When you sit a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds down and then start to lecture to them, they’re not actively involved. And learning, like healing, is an active rather than a passive process.”

Then Kraus attended a daylong workshop run by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, PhD, known as the originator of peer instruction. “It was a eureka experience,” he recalls. So Kraus started to adopt Mazur’s three-step approach:

  1. Before each class, Kraus has students read one or more chapters in his textbook, covering the topic(s) of the week.
  2. When students arrive at class, he asks them for their “Q&Cs,” or questions, concerns, and confusions. “Literally, what do you need clarified?” he explains.
  3. Instead of directly answering their questions, Kraus uses Poll Everywhere to poll the students for their responses. He then asks students with differing opinions to pair off. “One student explains the rationale for his or her answer to the other, then attempts to convince them of it,” Kraus explains. Then the other student in the pair does the same. They may end up arguing—which is just what Kraus wants them doing, because it means they are engaged and learning.

Kraus no longer uses the term lectures, preferring to call his class format discussions. “I strive to create a circumstance where I could have a 2-hour, 50-minute class, wherein all we do is discuss student questions, concerns, and confusion about the readings from SS A&P,” he says.

4. Visualization

Kraus incorporates components of the Dean Vaughn Total Retention System, one tenet of which is that it is easier to remember a picture in the mind’s eye than to memorize a page full of words.

Example: He uses a combination of verbal and visual cues to help students remember anatomical terms. In this process, students create a soundalike word for the term in question, called an audio-nym. For instance, he says, “gastric” (which has to do with the stomach) sounds like “gas truck.” Students are then shown a photo of a gas truck with a stomach for a tank. The more illogical the association, the more memorable it is.

5. Association

In this approach, new terms and concepts are linked to those already familiar to the learner. Again, the more illogical the association, the more memorable it is.

Example: He might explain the vascular system by likening it to a transportation system. “The vehicle is the blood, the heart is an engine providing energy, and the highways are arteries,” he explains. These relationships help students think about blood flow in a relatable way.

6. Concepts

“I feel strongly that, as Einstein said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,’” says Kraus. By focusing on simplifying concepts, educators can make it easier for students to understand how the little pieces fit together. This is the idea behind his entire textbook, Super Simple Anatomy & Physiology: The Ultimate Learning Tool.

Example: He uses just a few words to clearly explain the concept behind why organs in the human body have certain shapes and locations: “Things in the human body are structured the way they are because of what they do,” he says. For example, human skin is thick, so it is logical that it is a barrier, while the lining of the alveolar sacs in the lungs is very thin, so it is easy to assume that its permeability is important. “It’s true for almost everything. Knowing this concept minimizes the need for mindless memorization by 50%.”

7. Movement

Kraus cites a growing body of evidence that physical movement supports cognition. As a professor of courses in anatomy and physiology, this is a subject near and dear to his heart. Plus, getting students out of their usual spots is sure to keep them from zoning out.

Example: Instead of confining them to desks, Kraus asks students to stand up, often calling them to attention with, “On your feet!” Students stretch, walk, and change seats. Sometimes, Kraus asks students to pair up and discuss a topic while they stroll. When they return, they share what they have learned with the class.

Overall, he says, any educator could implement his techniques: “It just requires a willingness to step outside your comfort zone.”

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