Tips for Helping Students Understand Medical Terminology

February 24, 2021

Understanding medical terminology is an important competency for any student aspiring to a career in the medical field. However, it can also be a significant barrier to entry for some students who find it too complex or intimidating. Whether a student is interested in medical coding, transcription, clinical roles, or medical administration, being able to understand, remember, and apply appropriate medical terms in clinical and professional settings is essential for success.

There are a variety of ways to teach medical terminology, but more and more schools are turning to online courses for their flexibility and adaptive instruction. The interactive nature and multimedia components of online course content offer expanded lesson tools that teach to all learning styles. Students can also learn comfortably at their own pace, on their own time. 

The trouble is that medical terminology courses are often dense, dry, and difficult to understand, no matter the instruction medium. Too often, they rely solely on rote memorization to teach the subject matter. For students who are not visual learners or not skilled at drilling thousands of terms into memory, medical terminology courses can be a challenge. Even students who are skilled at memorization may falter if they are only able to retain the subject matter long enough to pass a test. 

The core goal of any medical terminology course is to help students learn and retain the terminology long term so it will be of use to them in their future careers. Adjusting the approach and organization of your medical terminology course can make all the difference in effectively instructing these students. 

Many strategies for knowledge retention work just as effectively in online courses as they do in traditional courses. Whether you’re focused on preparing future physicians for their clinics or giving medical coders the information they need to excel and grow their careers, information retention is the most important part of a medical terminology course. 

Breaking complex terms down into simpler components, incorporating multimedia tools to address different learning styles, and structuring your courses to reinforce associations are strategies you can use to increase knowledge retention and design an engaging, effective medical terminology course.

Simplify Common Root Words to Help Students Understand Medical Terminology

Most medical terminology is based on Latin and Greek root words. When the roots of modern medical science were developed, these languages formed the lingua franca of academics everywhere. Historically, this allowed physicians around the world to communicate clearly and easily, regardless of their native language. Today, however, Latin is a “dead” language typically relegated to academic and scientific pursuits. Encountering it for the first time can be intimidating for students who are new to the study of medical terminology. 

Conveniently, some basic root words are found throughout the medical field. Teaching the  meaning and form of the most common components and word stems can help students break down the meanings of terms, even if they have never encountered them before. Many of these component words and word stems are found in the same position in various terms and retain their meaning regardless of placement.

Word Stems, Suffixes, and Prefixes

In general, a compound term is made up of a stem word, a suffix, and potentially a prefix. In most cases, the meaning of the stem is retained, even in different contexts. For example, the prefixes “hyper-” (excess) and “hypo-” (low) are used in many medical terms. Hypertension, hypercalcemia, and hypertrophy are all examples of “excess” that use the hyper- prefix: excess blood pressure, excess calcium in the blood, or excess growth of a body part. Students who have memorized common prefixes will know instinctively that these terms are about excess without having to check the word’s definition. 

In many cases, identifying just a part of a word will help students figure out its meaning as a whole. Memorizing word stems, prefixes, and suffixes can help students tease out meaning from even the most obscure medical terminology. 

Understanding the meanings of words derived from Greek or Latin verbs and adjectives is also an important tool for long-term retention of medical terminology. Many bodily processes have names that stem from verbs in these languages. Understanding fundamental Greek verbs such as “genesis” or “logia” can help students break down words like pathogenesis and neurology.

In teaching your students, you can focus on individual word parts, on disciplines, or on body systems. Grouping ideas together will help your students associate them with appropriate learning schema and retain them more effectively. Online flashcard sets organized into these categories helps reinforce relationships between terms while also helping students study. 

Some root word categories you can focus on covering include those connected to:

  • Specific medical items
  • Diseases
  • Equipment
  • Disorders
  • Medical procedures
  • Anatomy 

Once your students understand these fundamental roots of medical terminology, they will find it easier to analyze and comprehend medical terms far beyond the ones covered in your course.

Fracturing and Dissecting Medical Terms

Once students have spent some time learning the fundamental roots of medical terminology, they are prepared to start breaking words apart and putting them back together. This process of breaking a compound medical term into its component parts is known as fracturing.

Fracturing is a viable strategy for approaching even the most complex medical terms, provided students understand how to apply it properly. The most important part of fracturing a word is to fracture it in the right place. Trying to divide a word in the wrong place will lead to two or more meaningless fragments and can even completely change a word’s meaning. Even changing a single vowel can have consequences. 

An example would be the letter “a.” The vowel “a-” can be a prefix, meaning “without,” such as in the word “atopic.” This word can be fractured into the sub components “a-” (without) and “topic” (from the Greek topos, meaning “place”) to understand the term has the meaning “without place.”

However, in the stem “arthro-” (meaning “joint”) if you fracture the “a-” then you’re left with “-rthro,” which has no meaning. Instead of the Greek noun for “joint,” the word has been fractured into two useless fragments. Understanding what can be fractured and what can’t is the most important concept of fracturing.

You can contrast this by explaining to your students that individual word parts can be fractured further into sub components. Take the suffix “-ectomy.” This suffix can actually be fractured into three component word parts by itself. 

The stems “e-,” “ec-,” “ect-,” and “ecto-” can all be fractured off a word to mean “out from.” The part “-tom” means to “surgically cut.” The final “-y” suffix indicates the process of doing something. So, the suffix “-ectomy” means the process or procedure of cutting and removing something from the body. By breaking words down in this manner, you can show how different word parts can be used in different circumstances. 

Medicine is such a broad field that it would be impossible to fully memorize every single medical term. Knowing key word components and how to break larger terms down into those components equips students to understand medical terminology without memorizing thousands of unique terms or checking a dictionary every time. 

Teach Medical Terms by Physiological System

Once students understand fundamental word parts and relationships, you can start to teach more specific terminology. Medicine is a broad field, so it’s best to teach specifics with a plan in place. One of the simplest ways to organize your instruction is by relevant body systems. This helps students retain information more effectively by reinforcing associations between terms. 

Using this type of clear organization may also help students learn better on a meta-level. Students learn best when they understand their course’s structure and purpose. Having specific goals and dividing your units based on physiological systems helps give your students the structure they need to better contextualize medical terms. It also helps keep terminology connected to concrete ideas and objects, forging stronger cognitive links between abstract language and actual processes and diseases. In the end, a systematic approach to teaching medical terminology helps your students apply their knowledge in a practical way.

An easy way to split up your course is to start with the largest systems in the body and then drill down to smaller ones. A potential unit division might move step by step through the body as follows:

  • Skeletal system
  • Muscular system
  • Integumentary system
  • Gastrointestinal system
  • Neurovascular system

This gives you the opportunity to increase the complexity of the course material steadily while keeping students engaged.

Connect Medical Terms to Common Vocabulary

Of course, explaining medical terminology out of context can only help students so much. Connecting terms to body systems and use cases helps solidify understanding. A great way to help your students learn medical terminology is to use examples of how terms are applied in common medical scenarios. This helps bring the terminology out of the realm of dead languages and into the modern world. 

A great way to do this is to have your students match medical terminology with their everyday vocabulary. While “hypertension” may not immediately mean anything to a new student, “high blood pressure” probably does. Connecting medical terminology to common vocabulary gives students familiar touchpoints for new terms.

This can then tie back into conceptualization of common medical word stems. If hypertension means excess blood pressure, then it provides a frame of reference when encountering a new word, such as hypercalcemia. Even if a student doesn’t consciously remember that “hyper-“ is a prefix that means “excess,” they can use backwards reasoning to connect “hypercalcemia” to “hypertension” and “high blood pressure” to realize it likely means an excess of something. The result is an extended toolbox for understanding unfamiliar medical terminology in the future. 

On a more practical level, giving your students a firm grounding in common medical terminology is important on its own. Students should leave any medical terminology course equipped with the vocabulary to discuss health conditions and procedures clearly and concisely with their peers as well as those without medical training. It’s vital doctors, nurses, transcriptionists, and medical administrators are able to understand each other quickly and without error. It’s equally important that medical professionals are able to explain complex terms to patients using common vocabulary.

By spending time focusing on common terms in medicine and pharmacology, students will be able to communicate with a variety of audiences using medical terminology clearly and effectively.

Reinforce Meaning Through Activity

In the real world, people rarely learn words without context. This is why some students find learning medical vernacular to be difficult. It’s one of the few times when words are taught without immediate contextual reinforcement. In short, if a word is not something they will immediately use in their daily lives, they are likely to forget it.

As we previously touched on, one useful way, one useful way to help students retain medical terminology is to design activities that use real world scenarios to connect medical terms with their meanings. Roleplaying using medical terms in conversation can help reinforce their meanings while also helping students overcome any intimidation they feel about using the terms. Mirroring videos and recorded lectures is an effective tool to teach medical terms in context while also helping students practice their pronunciation.

To reinforce this, you can include recording assignments as part of your course. For each unit, students can turn in a one-minute recording of a conversation that includes terms from a vocabulary list used in complete sentences. This allows you to check students’ pronunciation, even in courses that are fully online, while helping them develop familiarity with using medical terminology correctly in context. 

You can also offer practice quizzes to help students test their knowledge. A practice quiz that includes real-world case studies or descriptions is an effective way for students to identify which terms they fully understand as well as those they don’t yet grasp. 

Customize the Learning Experience

Students learn better when given agency in their education. Specifically, students involved in active learning retain more than they think they do and understand it more fully than those taught via undifferentiated instruction. 

A fundamental cornerstone of modern pedagogy is that different learning styles require different approaches, but it’s easy to fall back on rote memorization when confronted with a subject like medical terminology. Many future health professionals tend to be incredibly hands-on when it comes to learning. Providing your students with a variety of tools to learn in their preferred style is key to helping them retain medical terminology. 

One of the advantages online courses offer is the wide variety of Multimedia options available to support multiple learning styles at once. 

Some ideas for incorporating multimedia resources into your medical terminology instruction include:

Medical Terminology Flashcards

The simplest but most tried-and-true method for memorizing words, flashcards are a useful tool for your students. Providing online flashcards helps students ensure they’re connecting the right terms to their correct definitions. By offering flashcards through your university’s online learning management system, you can also gain insight into how your students are studying by tracking how often each set of cards is opened and used. 

Recorded Lectures

Recorded lectures are an important resource for auditory learners. In a medical terminology course, they’re vital for effective instruction. Using a term correctly is fundamentally tied to pronouncing it correctly. Giving your students recorded lectures provides them with material in a familiar format and helps all students hear and understand proper pronunciation.

Slideshow Presentations of Medical Terms

Most lectures include slideshows as a visual aid. Uploading these slideshows separately can help make your course more accessible for everyone. It helps students study at their own pace and provides a useful tool for building study guides or review materials. Most importantly, it allows you to include images to connect terminology to processes and systems in a single slide, which helps students retain the information more effectively than with text alone.

Interactive Diagrams with Labels

For hands-on learners, it’s important to be able to interact with their learning materials. Online medical terminology courses can facilitate this in a way few other instruction mediums can. At CIP, we offer state-of-the-art interactive diagrams that allow students to explore the body and related terminology, connecting terms to systems no matter when or where they choose to study.

These instructional tools can be offered and accessed online through CIP’s own streamlined LMA or via the learning portals many schools already have in place. Either way, supplementing your instruction with multimedia tools adapted to students’ individual learning styles can help reinforce lessons and deepen knowledge retention.

Helping Students Retain Medical Terminology

The human body is a puzzle of complex systems built on a foundation of thousands of simple processes. Similarly, the terminology used to describe these systems and processes seems complex and intimidating for many students, but is also built on a foundation of approachable components. 

The primary goal of your medical terminology course is to instill in your students the knowledge and skills needed for successful communication in a future medical career. The best courses offer hands-on learning, a variety of supplemental materials, and interactive resources that reinforce conscientious instruction.  

Understanding root words and components, reinforcing relationships, and practicing pronunciation in context are all effective methods that can help your students grasp and retain a thorough knowledge of medical terminology. 

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