You’ve been studying the same way your entire life—and so far, it's been working! You are in medical school for a reason. But with medical school comes a deluge of information for you to memorize and quickly access during class time, clinical scenarios, and exams. Most medical students feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they're required to learn. But what most don't yet know is there are a few simple tweaks you can make to your study habit to make learning medicine easier.
These common studying mistakes have been backed by empiric testing—testing each method against a control group. Over the last 50+ years, a tremendous amount of work has been done rigorously testing study techniques to determine which ones result in better learning. You can study smarter (not harder!) when you're learning medicine. We'll show you!
Common studying mistake #1: Read and reread the study material; highlight and rehighlight 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 rehighlight, and underline and reunderline 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 now known as the “fluency illusion,” the very powerful but utterly false sense that you have a much greater grasp of the material than you do— simply because the information has become more and more familiar. In fact, rereading, rehighlighting, and reunderlining have been proven to not improve test scores at all—no matter how many times you do it!
What is fluency illusion?
Just because you are familiar with material doesn’t mean you can accurately recall it. An fMRI study (Ryals et al., 2012) found evidence that familiarity and recall are not the same. They are processed in two separate parts of the brain: Recall is moderated 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 recalling it over progressively longer intervals of time.
Common study mistake #2: Study one topic at a time. Move on to the next topic once you’ve mastered the first one.
This technique seems intuitively logical and sound. It's 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.
Common study mistake #3: Study at the same time and place each day, in a location free of distractions.
Medical 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? Varying up your surroundings.
It has been a surprising and counterintuitive finding from the learning research that encoding improves when studying in varying surroundings and with mild distractions.
Our brains habituate to elements in our surroundings that don’t change with time and essentially cancel them out. In novel environments, we have much stronger event-related memories. Unique experiences stand out.
Studying day-after-day in a bland, small, white room with no distractions adds no importance to the memories generated there; it decreases encoding strength because you’re bored to death with the place!
Common study mistake #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 (visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary, etc.). 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. Rather, studies show, again and again, that spaced retrieval is the most effective way to lock the study material into long-term memory, regardless of anyone’s favored learning style.
Common study mistake #5: Use practice questions to confirm your mastery after extensive study.
Okay, this myth is partially true. For instance, quizzes that cover an area you have studied extensively are a good means of self-assessment of your current knowledge of that area. But Q&As do so much more!
Q&As are the ideal presentation of facts, concepts, and processes during all stages of studying—assessing your knowledge of a topic, previewing the material, studying it, and as a means of processing the material into long-term memory.
Common study mistake #6: Cram before exams.
This is a tried-and-true test prep method that we’ve all depended on when we’ve 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.
How to study in medical school
There are two techniques that are most useful for effective learning in medical school: practicing recall and spaced retrieval and strengthening encoding.
How do you practice recall?
There is a specific way you must engage with the recall process for it to be effective. You can’t just spend a few seconds trying to recall the information and say, “Nope, don’t remember much” and then jump back into reading about that topic. This will drop you right back into your soft and fuzzy illusion-of-fluency world where you are not really learning anything.
Even if you don’t remember anything at first, strive to dredge up all the information you can that is related to the topic. This is termed “effortful recall,” and the more effort you put into recalling the facts or concepts, the stronger your memory becomes when it is reencoded and reconsolidated with new information.
How do you do spaced retrieval?
Purposefully repeating the recall of previously learned information is called retrieval practice. This process has been studied extensively, and the best way to practice retrieval is with spaced retrieval. Spaced retrieval is when you practice recalling a topic multiple times—with a progressively longer time between each session. Each session results in memories of that topic that are even more durable and even more easily accessible.
How do you strengthen encoding of information?
Encoding is the first stage of the memory process. When you experience an event, all the information is funneled to the hippocampus and converted into a neural code that can be stored and accessed, first as working short-term memory and later as distributed long-term memory.
This episodic memory contains all relevant information of the event, the “who, what, when, why, and where,” the emotions, the sensations, and the personal importance of the event. This hippocampal processing is called encoding, and there are a few factors that can influence it.
Stronger encoding of information is encouraged by things like being in good physical and metal health, having a strong motivation to learn, and more. We detail all of the factors that influence memory encoding in Studywise.
Our brains have a seemingly endless capacity for storing information—in fact, the brain’s storage capacity is practically infinite. So why is it so hard to learn medicine? The problem isn’t your brain’s storage ability, the problem is your brain’s accessibility of the information you’re studying. Once you understand how to make the information you’re studying easier to access (like when you’re in clinical scenarios or taking an exam) the easier time you’ll have learning medicine.
Once you understand how to make what you’re learning more accessible to your brain (enhance your recall) you can actually strengthen your ability to access the information!
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