So, you’ve passed your A-levels with the grades you needed for medical school, and you’re looking forward to embarking on your degree this September – but now what? You’ve probably heard a hundred times that university won’t be like school, that you won’t be spoon-fed the curriculum, and that you will be in charge of your own learning, but what does all that actually mean?
Whilst in school, there were 30 people in a classroom, in medical school there will be almost 10 times this in a cohort. This changes the way you will be delivered the curriculum, and your education, and makes the need to be a pro-active learner extremely vital. There is also the huge amount of content covered in medical school, as compared to many other degrees. In this article, we go through a number of scientifically proven and anecdotally effective methods of how to study the most efficiently in medical school, because trust me it took a long time to get to grips with how to study better.
Learning How You Learn
The first few terms of medical school can be challenging with regards to understanding your individual style of learning. Whilst some people will come in from A-levels already understanding the ins and outs of ANKI (keep reading for more), some will have exclusively made notes and read these. The volume of information, the way it is delivered and the need to both understand and retain it, in medical school means that you may need to initially adapt the way you learn and find what works best for you. This often takes time to do. A good starting point, however, is to understand what type of learner you are primarily. If graphs, flashcards, and images work well for you, then you are likely a visual learner; whereas if you enjoy listening to lectures or YouTube videos, you may enjoy a more auditory style of learning. Verbal learners often enjoy writing things out, or presenting them to others. You must also learn whether you function best studying alone or with others, as we will go on to talk about. This can affect the study methods you choose to use.
Also, keep in mind that each university delivers content in a unique way. If you want to learn more about which teaching styles are ideal for you, click here to read our article on this topic.
Staying On Top Of It
This tip might sound obvious, but it is a commonly made mistake to fall behind on lectures or coursework and leave them until the week of the exam. Covering all the material delivered to you by the medical school as it is given, is key. This can easily be managed with a work-life balance, with some people advising treating medical school and studying like a 9-5 job, even on the weekends so that you stay up to date. Falling behind is extremely easy due to the sheer volume of content delivered each week. Cramming for exams is simply not the most efficient or sustainable way to learn content in medical school, and it is much better to use techniques such as spaced repetition, which we will discuss, to ensure that material stays in your long-term memory.
Many people advocate against diligent note-taking in medical school for many reasons – the volume of content means that taking, particularly hand-written, extensive notes is extremely time-consuming. Whilst other methods may be more efficient, notes do work well for some people. In this case, making use of scientifically proven methods such as Cornell note-taking may be effective. This method involves dividing a page into 3 sections. One column for notes, which covers the main points of the lecture in concise sentences, using abbreviations and lists and this section of the page is filled during class. After class you fill the other 2 columns on the page – the cue column next to the main column, covers the key points, questions that connect the points and allow you to test yourself, any diagrams and study prompts; and the summary column at the bottom is for high-level main themes which can be used as a quick reference area. Both of these are used during the reviewing stage of the 5 R’s of Cornell Note Taking, which are: Record, Reduce (summarising), Recite (reciting the material in your own words without looking at the notes), Reflect (raise questions and record ideas) and Review. This method of note-taking builds in active recall (discussed later) and encourages you to engage with the material you cover more effectively. Within the cue column, you can also make use of things like mnemonics to aid memorisation of lists or concepts.
This tip is a slightly different one, but one that I personally stick to ardently, having learnt it from Ali Abdaal (who I’m sure you have heard of and has some excellent videos on study methods) during one of his post-graduate exam revision videos. If you look this up online, it will come up with how teachers map out the curriculum which is not what we are thinking about here. Curriculum mapping or scoping is essentially where you go through learning objectives set by your medical school and write out all the different main areas covered so that you can ensure that you cover them all during your revision. This also lets you identify gaps where you might need to use resources beyond your formal curriculum. I recommend doing this through either a mind-map, or my personal favourite, creating Notion subpages.
Spaced Repetition/Interleaved Practice
Whilst it is important to consistently revisit material you have covered to ensure it enters your long-term memory, it is also important to ensure this is at the right time. Scientifically, the best time to revisit this information is around the time when you would naturally forget it. Hence spaced repetition strategies encourage you to space your revision and self-testing or active recall over time which helps you retain the information longer. The key is also to increase the space between intervals once the material becomes more familiar. Certain flashcard apps like ANKI allow you to rate your familiarity with a subject, and then have built in spaced repetition. If you prefer not to use these, a simple spreadsheet tracking the topics to cover and when to cover them with gaps between can be a useful alternative. Spaced repetition is one of the keys to studying ‘smarter not harder’, maximising your efficiency for time, but can take some time to get used to particularly if it is not something you have tried previously.
Interleaved practice is a similar technique however it allows you to work on multiple skills or areas at the same time by alternating between them. For example, studying topics A B and C in the pattern ABCBCABAC rather than AAABBBCCC; allowing yourself to understand how concepts overlap and differ, and building in spaced repetition, which increases overall memory retention.
Testing Effect/Active Recall
The single most important tip is to understand that the learning process in medical school is now much higher-stakes and that active learning is better than passive. Reading or highlighting notes or textbook chapters is an extremely passive form of learning which does not encourage you to engage with or recall the material you have learnt. When you incorporate active learning this allows you to practice the way you recall information for an exam, and strengthens the underlying knowledge. Testing improves retention of knowledge, and makes it easier to recall later on. There are a number of ways you can do this. Firstly, the most commonly used is flashcards such as ANKI, Supermemo, Brainscape or Quizlet. Some people even prefer written flashcards. These allow you to synthesise the material into questions and answer these as revision. ANKI particularly has an excellent algorithm for spaced repetition and a number of helpful add-ons such as Image Occlusion to allow you to practice labelling for Spotter exams, or Cloze Overlapper. Secondly, taking notes in an active way and testing yourself on these as aforementioned can be helpful. Finally, creating a spreadsheet of questions with separate tabs for each lecture or practical covered can be a helpful alternative if you do not want to use flashcards. Even using lecture slides, you can engage in active recall, which can be helpful if you are a visual learner, through using the ‘closed book/paused video’ technique where you attempt to recall everything on a slide without looking at it and then check yourself. Another method is to review a lecture or topic material, and then create a large mind map of everything you can remember, and then review to see what you have missed. This is similar to the strategy of ‘brain dumping’, which when done effectively can be extremely useful – this is a free recall, rather than a more structured question-answer model of active recall. As long as you are actively testing yourself, any of these methods work!
An effective learning environment is also very important to effective studying in medical school. Figuring out whether you are most efficient in the library, or at home in silence is important. Having all your resources organised and easy to access is also crucial. Having a synced google drive folder which automatically syncs from your computer files is handy.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Asking older students for advice and tips that are specific to your medical school is also a game-changer as they can give you exam/resource-specific advice to ace the exams. With regards to group working in medical school, this is definitely something to try but should not be relied on exclusively. Study groups can be useful to consolidate material together, go through techniques and apply the Feynman Technique of assigning each other topics to teach one another. But this must be done efficiently, considering the value of collaboration against the likelihood of distraction. Study groups are most useful for practical exams such as OSCE/OSPEs.
You may have been used to producing revision timetables for school, and this is something that continues to be useful in medical school. Creating structured timetables for each month at the start of it allows you to get an idea of what you will be covering and when, as well as how many times you can cover each topic before an exam for example. Timetabling the hours in each day is more effective done on the day when you know what objectives you would like to achieve. There is not a set amount of hours you have to study a day, however it is useful to have some element of structure and try to stick to a routine or workflow. Balance is key, and timetabling in a social life is important to ensure that your studying is balanced.
To conclude, I will round up with a number of useful resources for studying in various different areas.
In preclinical years Osmosis, Lecturio and Sketchy can be useful for understanding topics, and Passmedicine has a Years 1-3 section which you can access for free which can be handy to recap key things. In clinical years, QuesMed and Passmedicine are useful both for question practice but also because they have structured ‘textbook’ sections by topics which can help with specific pathologies and their management. ZeroToFinals has both a helpful podcast which you can listen to during commutes to placement and concise free notes online covering pathologies and management again. Finally, the holy grail for clinical skills and OSCEs from first year onwards is Geeky Medics, who have both useful YouTube videos and also interactive checklists which you can use to practice with your friends.
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Written By Catherine Dominic