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    6 Study Tips for Taking Maintenance of Certification Exams

    If you’re prepping to take the ABIM or ABP MOC exam, it’s probably been a few years (okay, a decade) since you last studied medicine textbooks in preparation for boards. And we’ve learned a lot about studying medicine in the last few years.

    MedStudy users told us that they need a better way to learn all of the information they were expected to know. Having the most focused, concise, and easy-to-read content simply was not enough.

    We’ve combed through the most useful, scientific tests to uncover the learning myths physicians, specifically, fall prey to and have uncovered new ways to help you study more efficiently.

    What are learning myths?

    There are many well-known study methods that have been passed down through generations of educators. We use them ourselves and teach them to our children. Educators still teach them. Based on many studies over many years, we now know that many of these methods are not optimal, some are not helpful at all, and some are counterproductive. These are learning myths.

    Self-correction is an important step in learning. Better learning occurs when the student has an active role and corrects their own errors—rather than simply being told the right answer.

    Let’s take a big step back and see if you can apply this concept to fixing the way you’ve been learning in the first place! Here we present 6 commonly used and taught techniques of studying that turn out to be neither optimal nor productive.

    Learning Myth 1: Read and reread the study material, highlight and re-highlight it until you know it.

    This is the method most of us have used for studying throughout our schooling. When you read and reread, highlight and re-highlight, and underline and re-underline material, you feel that you are learning the material better and better.

    Once you understand it all, you think you don’t need to study it again. But you are being tricked by what is termed the “fluency illusion,” the false sense that you have a greater grasp of the material than you do—simply because the information has become more and more familiar.

    Fluency illusion is a subconscious reaction to specific study aids (highlighting, study guides, etc.) where the subject, based on their familiarity with the material, is overly confident in their ability to recall information.

    Just because you are familiar with the material doesn’t mean you can accurately recall it on a board exam or in practice. An fMRI study (Ryals et al., 2012) found evidence that familiarity and recall are not the same. They are processed in 2 separate parts of the brain: Recall takes place in the hippocampus, while familiarity involves anterior parts of the parahippocampal region or MTL cortex.

    Subjects who found items familiar knew they had seen them before, but they couldn’t tell you where or when. To accurately and reliably recall information, you must practice retrieving it over spaced intervals of time.

    What to do instead:

    Instead of rereading, test yourself on a topic before and after you read. Only return to the text for self-correction or deeper understanding.


    Learning Myth 2: Study one topic at a time.

    Move on to the next topic once the first one is mastered. This technique seems intuitively logical and sound and is still being used in most schools. Study one concept or set of related material before moving on to the next. Well, counterintuitive as it may seem, studies show that there is a better way to learn—essentially by mixing up the topics.

    What to do instead:

    Instead of waiting to master one topic before you move on to the next, in this pattern: AAABBBCCC, try cycling through a handful of topics at a time, in a pattern like this: ABCABCABC.


    Learning Myth 3: Study at the same time and place each day, in a location free of distractions.

    This is almost as hallowed a tradition as Learning Myth 1. Students have spent countless hours studying in the same, boring room because they were erroneously told it would help them focus and learn more. What works better?

    What to do instead:

    Instead of choosing the same study time and place, change up your environment. If you focus on what you are studying, you’ll find you can ignore mild distractions, and you’ll actually remember more.


    Learning Myth 4: Find your learning style and study accordingly.

    Evidence from many studies shows no support for the idea that you learn better if you study according to your learning preferences (i.e., visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary). This is an insidiously pervasive myth that is still believed by the majority of teachers—in higher and lower education. Many teachers arrange their assignments around the different learning preferences of their students. Studies show, again and again, that spaced retrieval is the most effective way to learn, regardless of anyone’s favored learning style. This is explained in Learning Truth 1.

    What to do instead:

    Instead of focusing on learning styles, test yourself on the material you are studying at increasingly lengthened intervals.


    Learning Myth 5: Use practice exams to confirm your mastery after extensive study.

    Not only is self-assessment useful after extensive study, but it is also helpful before and during your studies. It lets you evaluate your current knowledge and preps your mind for learning more on that topic. Of course, you can take self-assessments after extensive study to evaluate what you know. But even more importantly, Q&As actually help you study and learn more effectively! We’ll discuss this in Learning Truth 1.

    What to do instead:

    Use self-testing to build durable, easily recalled memories of important facts and information.


    Learning Myth 6: Cram before exams!

    This is a tried-and-true test prep method that we’ve all depended on when we realized that we weren’t ready for an impending exam. There may be some short-term benefit in cramming, such as passing the exam. The overarching problem, however, is that most of what you crammed is—pfttt!—gone, shortly after the exam. It is much better to learn the material in a way that makes the information immediately accessible whenever you need it, even long after the exam. The fix is in Learning Truth 1.

    What to do instead:

    Instead of cramming at the last minute, start studying early by reading once, and then practicing spaced recall of the information you hope to remember.

    The MedStudy Method combines the very best, board-focused material with evidence-based learning techniques in an easy-to-apply, 3-phase approach to study. Download our StudyWise guide for an in-depth look at the MedStudy Method.

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