How to Study in Medical School

Plus Medical Mnemonist Tips

What are the best study tips for medical students? How can I study less and remember more? These are very common questions I receive through the Medical Mnemonist Podcast audience, and remember hearing often during medical school. There are a few simple study methods that any learner can implement at any stage of their education. We will cover some of the main points in this article.

In a recent presentation, I was invited to speak at the Mensa Regional Gathering in Florida. At FreeMedEd, we usually focus on how to study in medical school, study tips and methods, and medical mnemonics for long-term retention of material. However, this audience was going to be more varied and required me to construct a generalizable outline that any learner of any age and background could understand. 

Thinking about what exactly to talk about, I couldn’t decide between my current passion for cognitive and learning psychology and a separate, yet overlapping, passion for technological innovation in education. So I decided to mix both in!

This presentation covered several topics that our Medical Mnemonist Podcast followers will be familiar with, including evidence-based study techniques and visual mnemonics creation. It also covered topics that are rarely covered in our other materials, with the exception of Read This Before Medical School, and which are often overlooked. This includes the effects of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet on our ability to learn. You can think of this presentation as a bridging point between our book and podcasts. Here are some of the key highlights.

Common Learning Errors

First, there are some common mistakes that many learners fail to correct. This can lead to lost time and decreased retention and memory. They can be grouped under the classification of “passive learning,” which is something I’m all too familiar with.

  1. Highlighting- We often overuse and incorrectly use the highlighter. If highlighting your notes, use sparingly. If highlighting a textbook this is often redundant as most modern scholastic tests have the important parts bolded or highlighted for you. We detail why these study habits are time-wasters and how to overcome them in our interview with Abby Marks Beale.
  2. Re-reading– Whether your notes or the last chapter covered in a textbook, research shows there is little to be gained by re-reading. During the second pass (or third, or fourth) we may gain a false sense of security. It tricks us into thinking we know the material because we recognize it. Don’t fall into this trap! Use active learning to truly assess what you have gained vs what you simply recognize.

Other Passive Learning Activities– Listening to podcasts, watching videos, and other activities that do not require your full attention can be considered passive learning. These are fine for what they are good for- getting information to you quickly- but they are not sufficient as a solo study tactic. Consider mixing these activities with some of the more active learning strategies below.

4 Steps to Effective Learning

Many learners only think about one or two of these steps. Without taking each step into consideration, we fail to become more holistic in our learning processes. Consider all of these steps in your study prep and in your later assessments.

  1. Health & Wellness– It should be no surprise that if our bodies are not in the best shape, neither will our minds be. Proper exercise and diet can not only stave off cardiac disease and all-cause mortality but improve our cognition as well.
  2. Planning & Prioritization– Do we have realistic, time-sensitive goals? Do we follow SMART goals or some other monitorable method? What will we do when obstacles arise? These should all be considered prior to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). We need to know where we are heading in order to get there!
  3. Training & Technique– Do you know the most Evidence-Based Study Methods for your medical studies? If not, you may be spending a lot more time in the long run. Spending a little extra time now to set up proper techniques and methodologies for your studies can not only improve your scores but shave days to weeks off of your dedicated exam prep periods.
  4. Self-Assessment– Do you keep records of your mistakes? Do you even know how to categorize the mistakes you make? Our MedEdge Method (free Essentials PDF download) uses the 3 main Error Categories of Negligence Errors, Test Procedure Errors, and Conceptual Errors as well as ways to fix each one. By breaking it down into manageable chunks we can then focus on incremental improvements of weak areas in our studies.
Students may learn factual and procedural knowledge in medical school. Studying at increasingly spaced intervals (Spacing Effect) and testing of factual knowledge (Testing Effect, Rehearsal Practice) have been shown to produce a much more positive effect on their learning for medical students. How to effectively implement this strategy, however, is not always so clear.

Technology in Medical Education

The lecture above also explains the benefits of digital technologies in advancing medical education. Videos have been a great help to students for years. However, there are few online courses that are designed to maximize student retention. We don’t need to cover this in great detail but it is useful to know there are non-traditional learning platforms that may supplement your traditional classwork.

Some free courses, such as Coursera and EdX (or the comprehensive database Class-Central.com), can be a great resource. It is important that students demonstrate effective self-directed learning in these learning environments. With a plan of action, students may be able to cover material much quicker with these outside resources than are available in class. It is our belief that, when set up properly, online courses are much more effective and efficient than traditional lecture-based learning.

Become a Medical Memory Champ!

Lastly, we cover advanced visual mnemonic techniques. Instructions on how to create visual associations to topics, link visuals together in stories (the story method), and store these images and dynamic scenes in a memory palace can all improve a student’s learning. These advanced mnemonic techniques form much more robust memories and increase long-term retention. Not only that, but it can be a very fun and creative task!

Try creating your own Peg System (number-image associations) or Major Method (number-sound associations) to practice your creativity. Later, you can create images for different topics and concepts in medicine that you can store in a memory palace. If you are new to this process, use our examples from Microbiology video to help guide you through your first visual mnemonic creation and memory palace as well!

How to Learn More

For specific techniques and expert advice, I’d recommend listening to our recent Recap series of the Medical Mnemonist Podcast. Even if this is being read a few years in the future, the information is evergreen and still very valuable. It has been split up into a few sections, starting with episode 46, to best compress and summarize an entire year’s worth of interviews, lessons, and personal experiences. You can also use the links in each episode’s show notes for more direct information about a particular subject of interest.

With this outline of errors to be aware of, passive and active learning techniques, and mnemonic skills development you can greatly improve your study efficiency. For a full list of all topics covered, please consider watching the whole presentation. Just remember, progress in such a complex field as medicine is slow and gradual. Try to mix up your study habits and find more effective ways to learn. It’ll benefit you greatly in the long run!