How to Not Fail at Medical School: Part 2- Organization & Schedules

In this continuation of the How to Not Fail at Medical School series, we will review tips on organization and schedules. 

Though many of them may seem obvious, it’s easy to forget the basics when stressed out and overworked. But, with any luck, this episode will help you become less overworked!

Update: Now you can find many of our study tips, mnemonic training exercises, and evidence-based methodologies to increase your study efficiency via our book, Read This Before Medical School!

Visual Aids

Many of these tricks can be implemented individually, while others are aimed at group study techniques. I wasn’t the most sociable in my class, but had I known some of these simple time-saving skills perhaps I would have been.If you are extremely visual, or dyslexic like me, sometimes it helps to close your eyes and visualize the process after each paragraph, chapter, or even each question when doing test-prep. I used to attempt to visualize my hand-written notebook, or an anatomical process after studying it.

The notebook acted as personal “First Aid” that I could use to recall facts, and sometimes even remember differences between similar diseases depending on the location on the page (ex: top left, bottom right, etc.). But after adding to this for months to years (and still add to it occasionally now) it becomes too massive a task to remember that way. It would be like trying to memorize an entire textbook!

If you get to the end of a question and think “WTF did I just read?” it’s time to implement a visual marker for your memory palace (and take a break!). A review of other memory techniques can be found at Accelerated Learning for Medical School.

Remember, you do not need to make a visual marker for EVERYTHING (although, nothing stopping you from doing so if you wish). Please to listen to the Medical Mnemonist Podcast episode regarding this concern. If you haven’t yet developed your visual marker skills for instantaneous use (as I haven’t), just use this skill for the more confusing topics. Was that nephritic or nephrotic? Did the patient have polymyositis or polymyalgia rheumatica? Goofy and personal images can help to separate them out. For simpler topics, you can always draw out a concept map or a Mind Map.

I often would pass a question I answered incorrectly hoping that I would somehow recognize it on the next round. Never worked! Especially with all of the eponyms (Werndig-Hoffman, Beckwith-Wiedemann…seriously?).

Sometimes the names seem to help when dealing with a particular system (ex: respiratory has very few eponymous diseases), but when completing test-prep and combining all systems together it’s very easy to forget what system Kaplan, Kennedy, and Kallman belong to. Don’t even get me started on Menitrier’s vs Meniere’s!

How to Study

Don’t build bad study skills. The of the keys to not having bad study skills is to never develop the habit to begin with. Start off strong. Students often ask How to Succeed in Medical School. To which everyone has an opinion, and not all will be correct for you. However, few ask How Not to Fail at Medical School, which there are objective proofs to.

Don’t Pre-read whole texts (unless you are an exceptionally fast reader or a masochist). Pre-reading is a great tool for large quantities of information, but many students misinterpret this to mean reading ALL of the following days material before hand…and sometimes re-reading it all again after. You may be better off to pre-read with the same style as speed reading: SQ3R.

Skim through the text looking at the main topics, sections, and key words. Have a general idea of what the text will contain. Then let your mind wonder a bit. With many text, this is enough for you to begin asking questions and building interest in the subject. And interest is key to attention.
If using the SQ3R for the first time, it can take a few weeks to develop this skill. Do yourself a favor. Make the sacrifice.

Don’t make the mistake I did and say, “I have too much to study to work on another skill set right now.” You wouldn’t try cardiac surgery without learning the anatomy and basic surgical techniques first. You may want to consider having some study techniques under your belt to prevent study overload and burnout.

Review, Review, Review

Just like real estate is about location, location, location, medical school is nothing without review. Unless you are a computer, or have perfect recall, there is simply too much information to retain it all – or even a fraction of it for some topics – without several reviews of the material.

If you didn’t guess by now, this is where I bring up the infamous Spaced Repetition. It doesn’t matter if you are listening to flashcard gurus, like Brosencephalon, or getting advice from 3x World Memory Champion (and soon-to-be resident) Alex Mullen, spaced repetition is a must.

Many students like to use Anki Flashcards for this, and they have a great community of donated card decks that you can use. However, the key to making the cards as effective as possible is to make them personal to you. Using pre-made cards, lectures, and mnemonics are not ties to your own emotions, memories, and sentiments.

There are other digital and analog methods for spaced repetition, so find one that is write for your study needs. It’s okay to try out a few methods as well, as long as you have a valid way to assess yourself and determine which is better.There is a reason the old saying “drinking out of a fire hydrant” is used to describe medical school: it’s true. Undergrad was likely a cake-walk in comparison for what you will now have to go through. So why not go through it with others?

Divide & Conquer

Study groups can be difficult. There are many personalities, different learning styles, different reading speeds, and different levels of subject experiences for each student. Here is one way that tackling material in a group can be performed without – hopefully – causing too much conflict.

Divide up different assignments and reading material according to your study group size and daily/weekly material. Then each student can present the material they learned from their designated study resources, as opposed to each student reading the same material and then trying to see if they missed anything from the others.

You will have to play with the concept a bit to suit your needs, so great detail is not given here. Point being, it is a great time-saver if EACH student isn’t tasked with reading EACH chapter or resource. Those tasked with a particular chapter will also test their knowledge by their ability to relay the important information to the rest in the group. They can also answer questions posed by other members. Making a quick presentation, mind map, or simply reading off one’s notes is fine for this practice and it can develop as you go.

There’s no reason the others in the group can’t also read the material afterwards. In fact, it wouldn’t be wise to leave too much of your learning based on another student’s comprehension and presentation abilities. But being primed with the relevant information from another student first will make it much easier to go through the resource again on your own, and act as a review as well.

You can also find out more about working together in Collaborative Intelligence, or find a book review or video online from the authors. It becomes much easier to work with others when we know the potential pitfalls and how to overcome them.

So, these are a few more useful tips and tricks to Not Fail in medical school. If you like this series so far, there are many more potential topics to discuss. Leave a message and I will put them higher on the to-do list. If you like any of the blog posts or podcasts found on our website, please do share! The goal is to reach and help medical students, which is increasingly difficult in the digital medial world we live in.