Study Tips

Key Resources to Study the Renal System

Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles
Published on Jul 25, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

In today’s blog post, Osmosis Medical Education Fellow Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles shares her tips on studying the renal system—one of the most challenging organ systems in medical school!

Though it’s challenging to learn all the necessary material in medical school, it’s doable once you figure out what tools and study techniques to use. Of course, this typically takes some trial and error. Personally, I like to apply a systematic approach to learning. In this blog, I’ll provide you with some tips and resources for studying nephrology, a topic many medical school students find challenging.

Start with the big picture and fill in the details

When you begin, start with the big picture. What is the organ you’re studying? What is its physiological role? Start with “obvious” information, and gradually fill in the details. This will allow you to establish a foundation of knowledge. Here is an example of what my notes look like as I’m going through this process; feel free to talk through this exercise, or write it out like I do.

Urinary tract system 

The adrenal gland, kidney, bladder, and genitalia are part of the urinary tract system, which filters water-soluble waste from the blood, such as ions, water, and toxins. It also controls blood volume and pressure, controls production of red blood cells, and metabolizes vitamin D.

Adrenal gland

The adrenal gland synthesizes cholesterol hormones (growth and sexual development), epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

Pathology of the urinary tract

 Any malfunction of the urinary tract system can cause anemia, brittle bones, hypertension, edema, kidney stones, or a change in urine output. (Make sure to exhaust all possibilities when constructing a list like this!)

Next, it’s time to learn embryology and histology. Histology is the study of the cellular units of function of an organ. Embryology involves learning the development of the organ. Don’t panic! Though embryology and histology can be challenging, walking through the information systematically will help you internalize the concepts. 

In a similar fashion to the exercise above, I take notes as follows:

Nephron: A nephron is a single functional unit in the kidney. It consists of Bowman’s capsule, the proximal convoluted tubule, descending and ascending loops of Henle, distal convoluted tubule, and collecting ducts. The collecting ducts empty into minor and major calyces, which empty into the urethra.

You’re all set to proceed to the next step.

Use visuals to your advantage

Drawing is a fun way to get engaged in the learning process. It can help you remember structures (and their functions) visually. If you find drawing challenging, feel free to utilize prepared images, like this one from Osmosis:

The major shapes in histology are cuboidal, columnar, and squamous. Once you understand what their functions are, it becomes easier to identify the organ in question. For example, in the proximal convoluted tubule, villi are involved in reabsorption and excretion. Using what you know about cuboidal and columnar cell shapes can help you identify villi! Drawing is a powerful way to familiarize yourself with these shapes.

Next, it’s time to learn embryology. Embryology is valuable for helping one understand the interconnectedness between different organ systems and how they rely on one another. I found the following Osmosis video incredibly helpful for learning the development of the renal system.

Apply your knowledge to physiology and pathophysiology

Now that you know the anatomy, embryology, and histology of the organ system, it’s time to learn physiology and pathophysiology. You can apply the same exercise as in step one: start with the big picture, and fill in the details. Don’t forget to create a drawing! My notes look as follows:

Form: Some important structures in the renal system are: nephron derivatives, collecting ducts, alpha-intercalated cells, and microvilli. The nephron is a single functional unit in the kidney.

Function: The kidney is responsible for regulating blood pressure, detoxifying the blood, and hormone production. It can affect other systems.

Great! It’s time to learn pathology. Your understanding of the form and function of the renal system should help you learn pathologies. At this stage, you may also learn any associated microbiology and pharmacology. Make sure to utilize your sketches of the nephron to add labels where appropriate; these drawings will become useful references.

This entire process should take a few days. Don’t forget to allocate a day or two for review and practice questions.

Testing your knowledge

Now that you’ve walked through the anatomy, histology, embryology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the renal system, it’s time to test your knowledge. Answering practice questions gives you insight into what your weaknesses are and how to address them.

The following are my tips and resources for testing your knowledge in medical school.

  1. Aim to create questions daily based on your learning objectives.

  2. On a weekly basis, utilize your school’s question bank, Osmosis questions, and USMLE® Step 1 questions (USMLE-Rx and UWorld are great for this) to test your knowledge.

  3. Make sure that you’re answering increasingly difficult questions in order to challenge yourself.

  4. Refer to First Aid for the USMLE® Step 1 and Osmosis's High-Yield Physiology Notes as you learn an organ system in order to familiarize yourself with its content.

Congratulations! You’ve done a great job committing all this information to memory. While at first it may have been daunting, writing, drawing, and testing your knowledge have surely made you more comfortable with the material. You can apply this technique to any organ system you learn in medical school. Happy learning!


About Antoinette

Antoinette Leonard-Jean Charles is an MS III at American University of Integrative Sciences School of Medicine, and current participant in the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship Program. She is passionate about women’s health and clinical education.

The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE®) is a joint program of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME®). Osmosis is not affiliated with NBME nor FSMB.

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