This post is extremely high yield – things that I learned about in medical school that I wish I knew back as a premed. Knowing these facts would have made my life a lot easier, would have made my studying a lot more efficient, and I would have more time to do other things that were important to me.
Active vs. Passive Learning
Passive learning is easier to do and more commonly performed by the majority of students. However, active learning is much more effective.
The first thing is to identify what’s important – when you’re reading a text book or listening to lecture, actively try to figure out what is important and emphasize that information in your notes
Next, organize the information in a way that you understand. Again this is going to be an active process – it is going to be difficult. It not going to be as easy as just passively reading, but you will reap the rewards at test day.
For example, one thing that I did was create charts. Let’s say that I was comparing two different things. I would have a chart, which was an active process to create the chart find the information and compare the two. The process of creating the chart was enough to improve my understanding, and now I also had a tool to review at a later date.
Memorize it in an active way – I’ll get to how to do that later.
Apply the information. This can be done in a variety of ways. You may be provided with practice questions from your course, in the textbook, or via an online service. You can also apply your knowledge with old tests or practice quizzes provided by your professor.
Looking above, numbers 1 and 2 apply to obtaining the information. Numbers 3 and 4 apply to reviewing the information.
Passivity may be the easy course, but it is hardly the honorable one.
― Noam Chomsky
Next, let’s talk about the learning environment. This section is very dependent on the individual so figure out what’s best for you.
Some people like coffee shops or libraries – I preferred my own place with a dual-screen computer set up, comfortable chair, and quiet environment. Everyone has difference preferences, so figure out what works best for you – some people tend to get distracted at home.
Group vs. Solo
Are you studying by yourself or are you studying with other people? I would generally split it 50-50, as that worked best for me. In group study, my rate of reviewing material was slower, but it helped reinforce different concepts and kept me motivated and sane.
Keep the groups small. There should only be 2 or 3 people including yourself. Larger groups have diminishing returns in that you will likely get distracted and productivity will decline.
Routine vs. Novel Stimuli
Novel stimuli and varying your study locations have been shown to improve recall and retention at later dates, but I find there’s a trade off between having novel stimuli and maintaining discipline.
The routine of waking up at the same time, studying in the same place, etc. may facilitate productivity and ward off procrastination. For some, the novel stimuli of studying in various new locations and studying with different people may impede their ability to get into the groove and maintain productivity long term. I found myself gravitating toward the former. But as always, figure out what works best for you.
Keep the groups small. Larger groups have diminishing returns in that you will likely get distracted and productivity will decline.
Generally this is going to be done in one of two ways as a pre-med – lecture and textbooks. In lecture, most of us follow along the lecture with our powerpoint slides open and take notes in the comments section. I do not think this was a very effective way to learn.
Here are some considerations:
Writing vs. Typing Notes
Figure out what works best for you. Typing is faster, which sounds great initially, but if you type faster you are able to transcribe what the professor is saying verbatim. This is not good – it’s PASSIVE. By writing, you generally write slower and therefore have to emphasize the important information and organize it in a way that you understand. Writing, in comparison to typing, has been demonstrated to improved recall.
Lecture vs. Podcast
A lot of classes now offer podcast, and for me this worked best. However, there are distinct advantages to physically attending lecture.
Lecture: You have a set routine and you’re surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing. You’re also able to ask questions. Be careful of the temptation of podcasting, as it requires a great deal of discipline to stay on track and not fall behind. If you’re the type of person who would procrastinate with podcasting, stick to attending lectures.
Podcast: On the other hand, a podcast gives you the flexibility to watch whenever you want to, meaning you can watch the lecture when you’re fresh and well rested. You can also watch it at increased speeds (1.5x or 2x playback speed). That benefits you in two ways: First, the lecture is now only 30 or 45 minutes rather than 60 minutes. The increased pace also may help you focus, particularly if the lecturer speaks slowly.
This is a complete waste of time. You can better use your time reviewing the information, organizing it, and doing active learning. Do not re-watch the lectures or re-listen to recordings.
I used to highlight the textbook and read my highlights to review before exams, but I don’t think that’s the best approach. Instead, try to make it as active as you can. Using either your computer or a notepad, summarize what you read into your own words. By doing this, you are identifiying the important information and organizing it in a way that you will understand – this will ultimately improve recall come test time.
I used to review my PowerPoint notes again and again prior to exams. This was terribly ineffective and I hope you learn from my mistakes. Similarly, do not just passively read your written or Word doc notes.
One of the best ways to memorize is to summarize the information. Let’s say you have three pages. Condense them into one page by organizing and restructuring the information in smaller chunks. Don’t just decrease the font size or adjust the margins. Actually read through your notes carefully and identify the important information and organize it in a way that you will understand. This process alone will reinforce that material, and now you also have a condensed study resource to study at a later date. You can additionally condense your summary sheet one more time. I generally just did one iteration, but you can do two. Figure out what works best for you.
Another extremely powerful method to memorize information is spaced repetition. The concept is that each time you review a piece of information, you will see it again after increasing intervals. For example, you learn information on day zero, then see it again after 24 hours, then see it after 72 hours, etc. This practice allows you to retain that information in a very efficient manner. Instead of reviewing it everyday, you only need to review it right when you’re about to forget.
To perform spaced repetition on your own requires a lot of scheduling and is not feasible. Cue Anki (or other Spaced Repetition Software [SRS]). Anki is free software for your Mac or PC. There are also apps for your smartphone (which may or may not be free). I recommend that you make your own flashcards using this app and review them daily. By making your own cards (versus taking someone else’s), you’re again taking advantage of the active learning process. Reviewing your cards daily is key, because if you fall behind you won’t be taking advantage of the space repetition.
To get through all my cards each day, I would open the app on my phone at any brief moment of down time. I would go through cards when I was waiting in line at a restaurant, or getting groceries, or waiting for a friend. In those few minutes of down time I was able to perform a handful of cards, but this adds up throughout the day. Sitting down to review a lecture can take 20+ minutes. However to do a few flashcards, you just need a few minutes.
Make sure you are well rested on test day. You’ve likely heard this time and time again, but I cannot emphasize this enough. Many people, including myself, have made the mistake of pulling an all-nighter, foolishly believing that cram studying was a better option. That will actually give you a lower test score than if you are well rested and had a nutritious breakfast. In doing so, you maximize your critical thinking abilities which does more to improve your score than cramming. Cramming results in suboptimal retention as your brain is fatigued.