Starting Medical School: Strategies for Studying

Today is the first day of medical school at Baylor College of Medicine!  Welcome to our students, and to new medical students starting at other schools in the United States (and the world!).  The following is a guide on how to study for new medical students written by senior medical students and faculty for our Transition to Medical School course.  I thought it was exceptional – and worth sharing.

Your goals

  1. Learn material for long term retention
  2. Pass exams
  3. Develop skills for lifelong education & studying (nope, it never stops but it can get faster!)

1. The Basics

  • No magic formula for studying except for diligence and consistency
  • Goal is to learn and apply pertinent material – NOT perfection
  • Efficiency is a skill developed through practice, persistence, and reflection – not the result of drinking more caffeine or a genetic trait that skipped your generation
  • Studying is not a competitive sport – some student take (much) less time to learn than you will, but some take (much) MORE time than you…that’s life! Good news – in the end, we are all doctors.
  • Be gracious.  To yourself and your peers as you pass through the basic science crucible that brings out some less than pleasant coping mechanisms.  It’s normal and will pass.
  • You will succeed!  Don’t believe us some days?  Ask any of the thousands of physicians, professors and mentors around you – we’ll be glad to remind you!

2. The Specifics

  • Choose one way to study and stick with it for at at least 1 week
    • Switching study methods costs more time than it saves and there is a learning curve to all of them
  • Start with the first lecture and go sequentially to be sure you don’t miss topics
  • For all study techniques
    • Study reps: 45-50 min “on”, 10-15 min “off” (see below)
    • Skim before lecture (assigned readings, ppts, syllabus, etc)
      • SKIM to familiarize yourself with how to spell new words and the general outline/concept of the lecture – this is not learning time
    • Attend > stream lecture and actively listen by taking notes, drawing pics, writing qs, etc.
    • Take a lunch break after lectures to get good nutrition, socialization and to recharge
  • Techniques for LEARNING
    • Mind maps
    • Review notes with ppts, syllabi and text book and create a condensed 1 page review
    • Rewatch the lecture while condensing notes and focusing on main points
    • Flash cards of high yield material
    • Single page flow chart of material
  • Techniques for REVIEW
    • Practice questions (online, review BRS books)
    • Small group discussion, lecture by lecture (max 4 ppl)
    • Small group quizzing of lecture material
    • Peer or upperclassman tutoring

Study Reps: 45-50 min “on”, 10-15 min “off”

  • “ON”
    • Close email, g-chat, FB, other distractions, put phone on vibrate/silent
    • Set an alarm and STOP studying when it goes off
    • Write down other tasks that come to mind on a sticky note but do NOT stop studying to do them (ex: reply to email, wash dishes, make a snack, look-up question from another lecture, chat with nearby friends, etc.)
      • These tasks can be done during your “off” period
      • You will be amazed at what distracts you and feels “urgent” while studying, but there is almost NOTHING that can’t be put off for <45 min, including perez hilton
    • Don’t be frustrated if the first 15-20 min (or more) feel “wasted” bc you can’t focus – this is NORMAL and the time from sitting to focused productivity will decrease as you adjust to a daily routine (the same as exercising)
  • “OFF”
    • Set an alarm
    • Reward time! NO STUDY RELATED ACTIVITIES!
    • Grab a snack, read a NYT article, catch up on the FB developments (OMG, so much happened in 45 min!!!), chat with a friend, send off a quick email, check off the list you made during  your “ON” period
    • Get up and stretch, walk around for a couple min – it’ll wake you up, get you out of your “study zone” (wherever  you are working)
    • Congratulate yourself on sticking to your study schedule and breaks
    • Relax and don’t worry about how much time you have/not spent studying, let the alarm clock guide you rather than checking your watch constantly

3. The Refinement

  • What works for others may or may not work for you – don’t be discouraged!
  • Study methods evolve as you discover what sticks best in your own head
  • New topics/blocks may require different approaches
  • At the end of the week or block, reflect on what worked well (timing, setting, method)
    • Adjust study methods to what works best for you – but remember, DILIGENCE and CONSISTENCY are king & queen
  • Exam results not reflective of your efforts?  Ask for help! Professors, upperclassmen, mentors and strong peers can enhance your study skills.
  • STUDYING is STUDYING – it is never wasted.

4. The Balance

  • All work and no play makes a miserable and burned out student, resident and physician
  • Set aside at least 1 hour as sacred for meeting your personal needs (NOT chores)
    • Examples: exercise, cooking a nice meal, calling friends and family, reading a great book, prayer or meditation
  • Sleep on a schedule: go to bed and get 7-9 hrs of sleep every night, your brain needs that time to literally build memory
  • Eat well: again, your brain and body need good protein to build synapses for memory, carbohydrates for fuel to burn while studying, and plenty of water to keep you going in the Houston heat
  • Break up your week: take Sat. afternoon/evening off for fun activities with friends/family (movies, restaurants, dancing, bars, parties…), sleep in Sunday morning and have time for yourself and your personal development (reading, writing/journaling, church, chats with significant other)
  • Schedule it: if we write it, we do it.  Use your gmail calendar, phone app, planner, etc. and plot out your week including your studying, exercise, family/friends and other activities.  It will give you a sense of control over your life as you plan your days, rather than your days ruling you.

5. The Non-Science Major

  • You’re not alone – great physicians come from a variety of backgrounds!
  • You may play catch-up at first, but you undoubtedly can succeed
  • Writing and theoretical dissection of literature/theory/philosophy/art will be applicable in medicine – but basic sciences throws you back to the forgotten days of multiple choice exams and memorization.  Dusting off those skills and learning to study for regurgitation/application rather than creation may take some time, so don’t despair if you are spending longer in the library than the Bio-E major.
  • Link up with a science-major classmate who is good at identifying high-yield material AND explaining it.
  • Contact the upperclassmen study tutors – many of us had limited science exposure starting med school (“Wait, is it 2 livers or 2 kidneys – I’m not really sure?” – General Surgery Bound MS 4) and more than succeeded — but we’d love to make that transition easier for you!

6 thoughts on “Starting Medical School: Strategies for Studying

  1. Pingback: Strategies for Studying Basic Sciences | The Pugsomites

  2. Pingback: From Pre-Med to Med: Making the Transition to Medical School | wellnessrounds

  3. Pingback: From Pre-Med to Med: Making the Transition to Medical School | Momentum - The Baylor College of Medicine Blog

  4. Pingback: Welcome new medical students | Momentum - The Baylor College of Medicine Blog

  5. Pingback: Welcome new Baylor students | Momentum - The Baylor College of Medicine Blog

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