Studying In Medical School is Different!

It’s the beginning of the academic year in medical schools around the world, and that means there are thousands of students who feel they are suddenly being asked to drink from a fire hydrant. The information you are asked to learn in medical school is different in two really big ways – It’s voluminous and (unlike in undergraduate education) all of it is relevant (albeit to different degrees) to what you will be doing the rest of your life. Learning how to make the transition to this new kind of studying is one of the biggest tasks a new medical student has to accomplish.

The following is a guest post from Preston Tsang, a medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine. The main take home message?

You have to study how to study if you are going to succeed in medical school!

All of us arrive to medical school with a successful strategy for studying… which we then have to seriously revise. The incredible volume of material means you either rethink how to study, learn, and recall info from the beginning… or you are forced to do so when you stumble – after realizing the way you studied in college won’t cut it in medical school.   

Every medical student quickly learns that standardized exams are a necessary objective measurement of how “well” you do in school … especially the mammoth exam called STEP 1. This exam (as you might guess) is the first of three “steps” to getting a license to practice medicine. But Step 1 in particular (and now Step 2) are also an important way residency programs assess the academic standing of students applying to their programs. #Pressure

Just like college, you need to study to pass the exams in each of your courses, but unlike college you need to prepare for Step 1 (which means everything you learn in basic sciences!). And BTW you also need to remember that you are not just studying to pass an exam or ace the Step exams.  Learning (not just memorizing) this information is essential to being a good physician.

So how best approach this overwhelming task? Only one way – You need to study how to study if you want to succeed in medical school. Make some notes as you study how to study, create your own way… but to get you started, here are the key points I learned as I’ve gone through this process.

It’s all about active learning. Gone are the days of cramming, or just reading something three times to learn it. It’s all about active learning, and – fortunately – there are a lot of people who study this and have come up with methods to promote active learning. All of them involve taking notes to synthesize (not just list) the material and interacting with the material.1,2

Studying in groups helps! Asking each other questions and having to “teach” each other is a great example of active learning.1   Studies have shown being quizzed about material is superior to traditional learning and basically halves the time it takes to learn the material.5

Take notes, but not too many. Notes are key, but should reflect your synthesis of the information, not every detail. There are lots of studies (and stories) about people who spend hours and hours creating spectacular notes and then don’t have time to review them. Guess what… they don’t do that well.1 There’s lots of literature on note taking, with many different strategies. Add this to your “studying how to study” list!

Review, review, review.  It seems obvious, but you don’t learn something on the first pass. There is science here, too! It’s takes 5-7 repetitions, spaced further and further apart, to really learn something. It doesn’t work as well if you review something 5 days in a row… it should be almost a logarithmic spacing to get best results.3,4,6

Flash cards (e.g. Anki) work great for details. Once you have the big picture summarized, go back and look for details that you need to know. Anki (and other similar apps) build in spaced repetition – they have you repeat things you don’t know well until you know them. Using this technique (i.e. using Anki) to learn a subject versus reviewing the material multiple times (i.e. re-reading notes) has been shown to improve learning.4

To enhance Anki flashcard learning even further, I discovered that there are certain structures to flashcards that make them more effective. In one study 80 students were randomized into two groups. One group used flash cards designed as a test (testcard) while the other half was randomized into flash cards using the more typical “studycard” format (see below). The group using the testcard format retained more of the information when tested. 7  

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UWorld has its place, but it’s not what you think. Despite what every upperclassman will tell you, your professors are right – you can’t learn medicine from multiple choice questions alone. But… once you have the concepts down, testing yourself and learning why you were right or wrong is a great form of active learning. More importantly, study questions are a great way to review (once you think you’ve learned the information) to find where you have gaps.

Don’t underestimate the power of mnemonics 2. Make them up and make them something you can’t repeat in public (a known strategy for successful mnemonics). Ask older students, residents, and even attendings for theirs.

So here is how to succeed at Step 1, based on what I’ve learned. When tackling a standardized exam with a vast amount of material, studies have proved the effectiveness of retesting, spaced repetition, and active learning. Start off with a solid base by learning initially from the notes you make in class and from class readings. Then, instead of just rereading the information, distill it down into summaries, draw diagrams, and create your own questions. On top of this find ways to promote active learning and retesting as you study like using practice questions or reviewing your Anki cards. This system of learning may not be best for every learner, but is a good place to start. Add to it with your own research into study techniques.

p.s. Don’t forget to build in (and schedule) time for self-care and sleep.1 


1. Dattathreya P, Shillingford S. Identifying the Ineffective Study Strategies of First Year Medical School Students. MedSciEduc. 2017;27(2):295-307. doi:10.1007/s40670-017-0396-2

2. Roffler M, Sheehy R. Self-reported Learning and Study Strategies in First and Second Year Medical Students. MedSciEduc. 2022;32(2):329-335. doi:10.1007/s40670-022-01533-w

3. Ericsson KA, Chase WG, Faloon S. Acquisition of a Memory Skill. Science. 1980;208(4448):1181-1182. doi:10.1126/science.7375930

4. Larsen DP, Butler AC, Roediger HL. Repeated testing improves long-term retention relative to repeated study: a randomised controlled trial. Med Educ. 2009;43(12):1174-1181. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03518.x

5. Morris PE, Fritz CO, Jackson L, Nichol E, Roberts E. Strategies for learning proper names: expanding retrieval practice, meaning and imagery. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 2005;19(6):779-798. doi:10.1002/acp.1115

6. Effect of uniform versus expanding retrieval practice on the recall of physiology information | Advances in Physiology Education. Accessed August 8, 2023.

7. Schmidmaier R, Ebersbach R, Schiller M, Hege I, Holzer M, Fischer MR. Using electronic flashcards to promote learning in medical students: retesting versus restudying. Medical Education. 2011;45(11):1101-1110. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2011.04043.x

And a few more things to help you on this journey!

Study tips for first year medical students

It’s the first day of medical school… what should I do?

Learning medicine: #SmartNotes

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