How to Study Effectively

Bliss Chang

Bio: Bliss is a fourth-year medical student at Harvard. He applied into Internal Medicine with hopes of pursuing a Cardiology fellowship. He is an avid mentor and passionate medical educator currently working on two books for medical students. In his spare time, he travels the world with the hopes of visiting every country.

May 7, 2020 |

If you’re fresh out of college, you’re probably used to cramming for an exam and dumping most of that knowledge the minute you put your pencil down. Because medicine encompasses an extremely vast expanse of facts, much more than any course you’ve taken before, you will rarely find time either in medical school or as a physician to learn the same concepts over and over again. It is imperative that you learn how to learn effectively and retain knowledge for the rest of your career. So how do we do that?

Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no single magical method that works for everyone. Countless studies have shown that there are many different types of learners and learning modes. That being said, there are many things most of us can agree on. How many times have you read a journal article only to forget what 95% of the article discussed? You’re not alone and it’s not because we’re not intelligent, it’s simply that our brains are not wired to absorb at the rates we need to in medicine through passive methods such as reading. More and more evidence is emerging from medical education studies, as well as from our anecdotal experiences, that active handling of information is better retained and more fluidly incorporated into our clinical practices.

The key to studying effectively is to practice active recall. This can be done in many ways, but one increasingly popular method among medical students is using flashcards. Since you’ll be going through tens of thousands of flash cards throughout medical school, you can use digital flashcard apps rather than physical cards. Regardless of the exact program you use, actively recalling facts that you’ve learned is key, and also great practice for when you’re asked those same questions by supervising physicians in the hospital. Medicine is a fast-paced sport and you cannot stand thinking about your answer to simpler questions; recalling answers via flashcards greatly helps with recall speed.

Drawing or reciting aloud frameworks and pathways are another excellent method of active learning. This mimics what you do in clinical practice – you are not usually tied to a book guiding you (imagine how time-consuming that would be!) in your practice, but rather are the one making decisions based on your knowledge and experience. Another effective method of active recall involves teaching a friend. Taking the reigns and dissecting a topic into an easily digestible manner exposes knowledge gaps and helps you fill them. The questions of your pupils also allow you to think about topics from different perspectives.

The pattern is clear: the more you force what is in your brain to come out into the world, the better you will remember. Importantly, active recall means continuing to practice until you are able to cold recall the material. This can be frustrating and more time-consuming because you are “stuck” until you can recall the concept, but wouldn’t you rather get over that hurdle now rather than on the exam or in the hospital?

Another key to studying effectively comes in the form of your information absorption. Rather than reading text, try watching concept videos or listening to podcasts. You’ll soon figure which methods are best for you, not only in terms of retention but also in terms of engagement and interest. Remember, no matter how good a method is scientifically, if you don’t like using that method, you won’t stick to it long.

Be sure to keep a high level of introspection and honestly assess what works and what doesn’t. An exam went well? Not so well? Take notice and think about how you studied! Ultimately, you’ll discover what works for you and what doesn’t. One thing is for certain – most of us are not savants and need to put in sustained effort to learn.

Knowing how to study is only half the battle; the other is knowing what to study. For the preclinical years, including Step 1, students will need the following resources:
1) Reference Book/Flashcards
2) Question Bank
3) Targeted tools (videos or adaptive products) that aid in your learning and retention of traditionally difficult material.

Remember, try using different learning modes!

Regardless of the exact brands you choose, you should remember to pick a few and finish them. A common mistake is to buy too many resources and never finish one! Most resources will teach you similar content so trust any reputable brand and stick to it! Deciding between brands is mostly a matter of who you talk to and any particular features (such as adaptive learning in Theime|Area9’s product) that may specifically attract you.

All in all, learning is as much about how you learn and what you use to learn as it is how much time you spend studying. As cliché as it may be, the phrase “study smarter not harder” couldn’t be more true in medicine.

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