Study Tips for First Year Medical Students

Yesterday was my first embryology lecture of the year to the new MS1s at Baylor College of Medicine, as well as the PA, DNP and Genetic Counseling students. For years, I’ve been including a few slides at the end of each lecture to help with the transition to medical school. Yesterday’s lecture ended with tips on how to study. I promised the students I’d share these slides in a written formate. I realized sharing them here might be the most appropriate way to do that!

Medical school (or any high volume graduate school) involves a dramatic change from what students have previously experienced. As you know, if you read this blog, I believe there are a lot of “tools” that can help students “thrive, not just survive

The biggest change for many students is it really isn’t about the grades anymore. It’s about studying for the patients you will be caring for in the future. That means really learning the material, not just knowing it for a test.

Even though there is still a lot unknown about how the brain works to learn material, what is certain is that it is a physical process. You create new synapses when you experience or learn new things. As they are repeated, these synapses get stronger and stronger.

So, to organize the advice, I’ll share some basics, some specifics and then a little refinement.

Learning this volume of material at this level of complexity is about consistency. You can’t run a marathon by running 20 miles every weekend. This is no different. You need to study every day (except one). One of our great teachers at Baylor, Dr. Clay Goodman, tells our students that they have signed on for a 60 hour a week job. (which roughly means 1-2 hours of studying for every hour in the classroom). If you map out your week as a 60 hour job, it will work a lot better than ever trying to “catch up.”

The SQ3R system is the best system I know to learn what you need to know during the basic sciences. So, how do you translate the SQ3R system into practice?

The night before lectures, spend 30-40 minutes skimming the lectures. No “studying”. Be curious. What questions are going to be answered during the lecture? How is it organized?  (BTW “Mike” is a fictitious patient with muscular dystrophy that Dr. Goodman uses in an introductory lecture to show how everything you learn in medical school matters – from the DNA to the psychosocial context of the family)

This 30-40 minutes is basically the “S” and “Q” of the SQR3 system.

  • SURVEY to get the big picture
  • QUESTION = what questions are going to be answered during the lecture? What else do you want to know to really understand this? (write them down!). Do not try to look up anything now.

During the lecture stay ACTIVE. Don’t sit in the back row and look at FaceBook – even if the professor is reading the slides.* You’ll need to take notes for this to be really active. Put the questions you want answered on an outline you prepare the night before lecture and fill it in during the lecture. Use mind maps or other powerful visual aids to learn. Click here to get to my post on taking notes during basic sciences.

*(If you are a lecturer who does this, stop it! – otherwise you are guilty of “death by PowerPoint.” Find someone who is a good lecturer and ask them to coach you.)

After the lecture, you move on to the 3Rs. Now you get down to the real studying. Read through the printed notes (or slides). Did everything get answered? MAKE NOTES that synthesize what you learned.

Review. Review. Review. Here’s the deal. Medical school is a lot like learning a new language.  The first part of basic sciences (anatomy, physiology, embryology, etc) is learning the vocabulary. The second part of basic sciences (diseases, pharmacology, etc) is learning the grammar. When you get to the clinics, you are practicing the language until you are fluent. “Flash cards” such as Anki are great at learning “vocabulary”. They are terrible at synthesizing and learning connections and concepts.  That’s why you need a single page summary of every lecture. The summary is the “forest”, your notes (plus or minus flash cards) are the “trees”. If you really want to succeed, you need both. BTW, I made the class repeat (out loud) after me (twice) – “You cannot learn medicine from Anki alone.” (It’s on tape. I really did this.)

Here’s an example of a single page summary of the embryology lecture I gave the class yesterday. I spent time to make this really look nice – more time than you will want to spend. It doesn’t need to be typed, it doesn’t need to be particularly legible to anyone but you, but take the time to do these summaries!

Did I already mention that you need to review?

This is probably the single most important slide I show when explaining how to best study in medical school. It’s the basis of many apps in medical learning, including the NEJM Knowledge+ courses. There are two really important points in this graph.  First, it takes at least 5 repetitions to really learn something. Second, they have to be spread out in a logarithmic fashion over time.

Here’s how to do it. The first three repetitions should be same day, next day and 2-3 days later. The more times you review it, the better, but it should at least be 1 week later and 3 weeks later.  More is better.  Plan another review a month later and three months later, too. For the Type A folks in medical school (i.e. all of you), make a spread sheet!

 

Another thing about our brains and learning.  Pushing through for hours without rest is as stupid as thinking you can build up your biceps by doing an hour of uninterrupted reps. Speaking of reps… use “study reps”. Get an app if you think it will help. 50 minutes of studying.

Stop studying for 10 minutes (no matter how engrossed you are) when the alarm goes. Repeat.

People sitting next to you in your study areas are going to look like they have it more together than you do.  It might be true… but it probably isn’t.  If someone has a study technique that looks like it will work for you, by all means try it!  Just don’t change too often. I was a liberal arts major in college. If you come from a non-science background, the first 6 months are going to be a little tougher on you because you have more “vocabulary” to learn but don’t worry, after that you’ll be caught up,

Read this slide. Believe this slide. The most important point on this slide is the last line. You cannot make those physical synapses you need to really learn without 8 hours of sleep.

Keep notes about what works for you and what doesn’t. Everyone is a little different, but you will find a system that works best for you through conscious effort.

It’s like running. Some of this is just “time on feet”. Remember the 60 hours a week job concept and you’ll do fine.

I end with this slide to remind my students that there has to be balance for this to work. Most of what I tell my students about finding and keeping that balance is in this blog, so feel free to use the word cloud to the right or search for what you might need. Please contact me if you have a specific question I can answer or if you have an idea for a new blog post.

Welcome to the best career in the world! We are all happy you are here!

 

 

 

 

 

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