19 physician-approved tips for how to study in medical school
Written by Maddy Crouch
- Medical students face several obstacles when it comes to studying: The sheer volume of information you’re required to learn, quickly forgetting what you’ve studied, holding onto old study habits that aren’t working, and staying on track with classwork and exam prep.
- There are scientifically proven methods you can use to study more efficiently, deeply encode the material into your long term memory, and have more confidence in what you do know.
- Over the past 50 years, scientists have been studying how the brain works, and specifically how it processes memories. We now know—based on the results of empiric data—that specific study techniques are not helpful for long term learning. The good news? We also know which study techniques WILL help you study stronger.
- Spaced repetition and interleaving are two key study techniques for medical students to deepen their brain's encoding and improve recall of the information they're learning.
- Besides classroom time and clinical time, your schedule in medical school will be packed with studying. Most medical students report that they study 3–4 hours per day.
Most students enter medical school without a good idea of how they’ll approach the required studying and quickly realize the study methods they've used so far in their education aren't going to work in medical school. There's simply too much material! There has been no set of books specifically for medical school, and students have been left on their own to find the best material that supplements the lectures.
The main problems that medical students face include
- The sheer volume of information you’re required to learn
- Quickly forgetting what you’ve studied
- Holding onto old study habits that aren’t working
- Staying on track with classwork and exam prep
Many students purchase various tomes written for medical specialists or use post graduate and college textbooks for some subjects, but then find that only about 5% of the content directly applies to their studies. Some buy various help-books filled with outlines of what is most important to learn but find them impossible to assimilate. Many buy Q&As for the USMLE Step exams and then cram to pass these tests.
Studying in medical school is the biggest source of stress for many students. There are scientifically proven methods you can use to study more efficiently, deeply encode the material into your long term memory, and have more confidence in what you do know.
Traditional study methods that don’t work in medical school
Many well-known methods of learning have been passed down through generations of educators. We use them ourselves and teach them to the next generation—it's probably how you were taught to study! But it's not optimal for how your brain processes memories.
Our evidence-based approach to learning medicine is detailed in our 32-page Studywise guide. It's free! Download now.
Over the past 50 years, scientists have been studying how the brain works, and specifically how it processes memories. We now know—based on the results of empiric data—that specific study techniques are not helpful for long term learning.
There are six common studying mistakes medical students make
- Read and reread the study material; highlight and re-highlight it until you know it.
- Study one topic at a time. Move on to the next topic once you’ve mastered the first one.
- Study at the same time and place each day, in a location free of distractions.
- Find your learning style and study accordingly.
- Use practice questions to confirm your mastery after extensive study.
- Cram before exams.
How to study in medical school
Through empiric testing, scientists have discovered two study techniques that are proven to help your brain remember more of what you learn: spaced repetition and interleaving.
Spaced repetition (or retrieval) is your secret key to successfully learning everything you need to in medical school. This is because the repeated retrieval of a memory progressively spaced out over weeks to months can make that memory easily recalled for years.
How do you do spaced repetition?
It’s all about how often you bring concepts back into your study sessions to quiz yourself on it—even if you know the material well. Once you’ve comprehensively studied a concept—meaning you fully understand it—you should review the Q&As or Flashcards for that concept. Depending on how correctly and easily you answer the question on that concept, you should “shuffle” it back into your study material to revisit the concept in 2 days, 10 days, 2 weeks, 10 weeks, etc. Each time you revisit the concept, your memory of it is stronger. Coming back to it at progressively longer intervals will strengthen your memory retrieval of the concept, making it easier to remember it on exam day or in the clinical setting.
You don’t have to create and manage a crazy study calendar to implement spaced repetition on your own. There are several tools and apps out there that will do it for you. MedStudy’s Personal Trainer takes the Core books and Qbank+ questions and serves you weekly study plans. It automates spaced repetition for you so you automatically see concepts at perfect intervals to strengthen your long term memory of the content.
Interleaving is combining multiple topics into the same study session. So you don’t want to just study biochemistry until you master it. You want to study concepts from several topics together, which is proven to enhance not only the encoding but also the cognitive processing involved with learning.
How many hours a day do you study in medical school?
Most medical students report that they study 3–4 hours per day. Besides classroom time and clinical time, your schedule in medical school will be packed with studying. If you understand how your brain processes memories, you can optimize your study habits to recall information faster. You may even be able to cut down on the study time, and you’ll definitely feel more at-ease walking into exams.
What is the best way to study in medical school?
If you’re relying on any of the 6 study mistakes we mentioned above, you really should look into reading the free StudyWise guide. This 32-page guide is written by a doctor—Tony Hannaman, MD, who voraciously studied learning science in order to help doctors he works with to cut down on their time spent studying.
The best ways to study in medical school are:
- Review material daily. You can skip a day here and there, but you should spend at least some time every day reviewing the material. Stay consistent!
- Spaced repetition. Get progressively longer intervals of time between each review of a particular concept. You can automate spaced retrieval via apps like Personal Trainer or Anki.
- Interleaving. Study multiple topics in every session—a great way to do this is to align what you're studying with the classes you're taking. Interleaving will help your brain create connections between the concepts and improve your recall.
- Practice tests. Q&As are a powerful study tool for spaced repetition and also to get your brain used to the exam-like environment. If you get Q&As wrong, remind yourself that the process of searching for possible answers—generation—helps you remember the answer better once you find it—even if you guess wrong the first time.
- Use visuals. Get creative! Concept maps, drawing out notes, and using illustrations while you study are all proven ways to create connections in your mind—therefore enhancing your memory of the concept.
- Switch up your study environment. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need complete silence or consistent time or any other strict rule about where, when, and how you study. The truth is, your brain unconsciously processes environmental cues in ways that actually help us to retain and recall information. It turns out that varying our study environment aids in the retention of new information.
- Join a study group. Study groups can be a great source of encouragement and increased confidence in the material. Through lively discussion and laughter, you’ll actively deepen and clarify your own understanding of subject material.
- Ask for help. Med school is incredibly difficult. If you’re struggling with the material, studying, or anything else, be sure to reach out for help. You’re never alone!
This is a great video from Zach Highley, a medical student in PA, that describes a few study methods he uses in medical school.
There you have it! The 19 best tips for how to study in medical school. Now that you know which study methods to leave in the past (ahem, rereading and highlighting!) you can start your study journey off on the right foot!