Have you ever been reading from your textbook, you realize you've been zoning out and you didn't comprehend the last paragraph? So, you go back to the top of the paragraph and start rereading only to zone out again. Then, when you try to recall what you read, there's no trace of it in your brain! We've all been there.
We love learning—and not passive reading! We partnered with learning experts to help us understand the best techniques you should use to make your study session more efficient and effective.
1. Practice Active Note-Taking
Don’t be a desk potato! Active learning techniques force you to retrieve information from memory. Here's one you can try next time you study: instead of highlighting text, draw a concept map.
A concept map is a visual way to represent the information you are studying. It takes more effort than passive note-taking strategies like repeating text from a lecture. This effortful strategy will help you remember more!
Another way to practice active note-taking is to jot down marginal notes in the form of questions rather than the more passive version of writing down lecture text verbatim (or taking pictures of the slide that you know you'll never go look at again!).
2. Self-Test Frequently
Self-testing is our favorite evidence-based way to learn medicine! It truly is the most effective way you can prep for every exam you'll take throughout your medical career.
To effectively self-test, your first focus should be practicing recall. When you come across any information you don’t feel confident about, try practicing your ability to recall the answer on your own first. If you’re not correct, use a comprehensive resource to review that topic again. Then—you guessed it—back to self-testing! Come back to that same question in a few days, and we're sure you'll get it right!
When you test yourself on a topic, it helps you remember up to 50% more than you would with re-reading alone. Practicing your recall repeatedly over time is the perfect way to strengthen that knowledge and make sure it sticks, so it’s there when you need to remember it for exams or when you're in an exam room with a patient.
3. Practice Spaced Retrieval
It's easy to tell yourself, "I just need to get through this next exam, so I'll cram!" That might seem like the easiest thing now, but if you use learning techniques like spaced repetition, you'll be locking the knowledge into your brain for the long haul. So, when you're confronted with a question or case you've studied through spaced retrieval in the future, you'll be able to recall it easily.
In other words, be nice to your future self and don't cram for an exam! Use these learning techniques so you don't have to cram every time you need to take the boards.
Spaced retrieval is the study of a topic at progressively longer intervals—days, weeks, and months after initially learning it. When you elongate the intervals of time between study sessions, you may have to work harder to remember facts—but they will stick with you longer. Studies have shown that review is most effective at the point of forgetting.
4. Mix It Up By Interleaving
We recommend a technique called “interleaving”—a fancy word for studying a few things at a time, rather than just one. Working together with spaced retrieval, interleaving can help you perform up to 76% better on your exam.
Instead of reading one topic and then going over questions on that same topic, mix up your study session by combining different topics. Your exams are not likely to go topic by topic. You'll see the questions randomized by topic to more accurately depict the array of cases you'll see in your medical career. So, you should study for your exams that way, too!
5. Vary Your Environment
Interleaving topics isn't the only way you can mix it up. You may have a routine of studying in the same place, at the same time, and in absolute silence (or maybe some music). We used to hear a lot about finding your ideal study environment and sticking to it.
Well, forget everything you heard. The latest research indicates that changing your study environment creates additional context that aids learning. Studying in a variety of places and environments helps by giving your brain new and different sights, sounds, and minor distractions that actually help you encode information better.
6. Develop Associations
Ever had something on the tip of your tongue, but you can't seem to come up with the right word, saying, or name? Why is that? Well, unlike computers, our brains don’t file every fact for instant retrieval. Instead, human brains like to connect the dots. If we want to remember what we learn, we must connect what we are learning with something we already know.
Intense emotion can powerfully enhance memory. Moderate emotion also enhances encoding, and we can use this effect to enrich the stories we create while studying. The more personal the emotion you experience with your stories, the better you will encode the event. For example, a Board‑Style Q&A is already telling a story. It helps with the encoding if you put yourself in this story and “experience” the scenario. So, you can imagine the patient in the question stem is one of your patients. Perhaps you then imagine explaining the reasoning of the correct answer to one of your amazed colleagues. Make it an interesting story with an ultimately happy ending.
Don't let the "tip of the tongue" syndrome happen to you when you're trying to remember an important fact on an important exam. Try to develop associations while you're learning!
7. Sleep After Learning
We all know it’s smart to get a good night’s sleep before an important exam, but did you know that getting sleep after we learn something new helps us understand and remember it better? So now, you have a good excuse to go to bed early after a study session!
One way to ensure you’ll get enough sleep is to embrace a nightly routine. For example, you could make a nightly routine to pull your wardrobe, pack your gym bag, and prepare your lunch for the next day. Then you can sleep in knowing you’re prepared for the morning.
Ready to start studying? Find the tools you need to truly learn medicine.