Study Less, Study Smart – What I Wish I Knew in College

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I bet that you aren’t studying anywhere nearly as effectively as you could be. Why should you care? Well, if you study more effectively, you can learn more and retain more in less time. This translates to less time studying, better grades, and more time doing the things you actually enjoy. In this video, we’ll cover all of the study hacks I learned in medical school, and what I wish I knew back in college.

This post is an updated version of my first ever: “Premed Study Strategies – What I Wish I Knew in College”. By following the tips in this post, you’ll be studying less and earning better grades immediately. I just wish I was studying like this sooner.

 

1 | Active vs. Passive Learning

The default studying pattern we all employ is passive learning. It’s easier, requires less effort, and overall is more comfortable. Active learning is more challenging and less comfortable, but is ultimately much more effective. There are 4 steps we must address to employ active learning. Steps 1 and 2 apply to obtaining the information, and steps 3 and 4 are about reviewing and reinforcing the information.

1) Identify

The first step is to identify what is important. Not all information is created equal. To employ active learning, you must constantly be sorting information and assessing its relative importance.

2) Organize

Next, organize the information in a way that you understand. Again, as an active process, you won’t just be copying and regurgitating information, but rather doing the difficult task of synthesizing the information in your own words, diagrams, and other study aids.

For example, I loved creating tables and charts. Let’s say I was comparing macro-minerals, such as sodium (Na), potassium (K), and chloride (Cl) in the GI system. I would take the extra time and effort to extract the relevant information and organize it in a chart format. The process of creating this chart was enough to improve my understanding, and I had an excellent study tool to review at a later date.

3) Memorize

Memorize the information in an active way – I’ll get to how to do that later.

4) Apply

Last, apply the information. You can do practice questions from the textbook or online services. Old practice tests or practice quizzes from your professor are also fantastic resources.

 

2 | Environment

Next, let’s talk about the studying environment. This is an area requiring more personalization, so it’s key that you figure out what works best for you.

1) Location

Do you prefer coffee shops and libraries, or studying at home? If you’ve seen the video of my workspace, you understand why I love working at home. Others may easily get distracted at home and like the coffee shop or library to help them focus on the work at hand.

2) Group vs. Solo

Are you studying by yourself or studying with other people? My split varied, but on average it was close to 50-50. In group study, the rate of reviewing material is slower, but its main benefit is working through and reinforcing difficult concepts while also keeping you motivated and sane. That being said, groups should be small. Study with only 1 or 2 other people. Larger groups have rapidly diminishing returns in that you will more than likely get distracted and your productivity will plummet.

One of the biggest advantages to group study sessions is the ability to teach what you’ve learned. This teaching reinforces the material for yourself and helps out your fellow classmates. This is called the Feynman technique and is incredibly powerful. If you don’t already use it, I suggest you start.

3) Routine vs. Novel Stimuli

There’s a trade-off between novel stimuli and maintaining discipline. Novel stimuli, such as varying your study location, has been demonstrated to improve recall and retention. However, for some this works directly against the benefits of routine.

The routine of waking up at the same time, studying in the same place, etc. may facilitate productivity and fight off procrastination. The novel stimuli of studying in new locations and with new people may impede your ability to get into the groove and maintain productivity long-term. Again, I found myself studying in the same spaces – either in empty classrooms within my medical school, which is when I usually did group study, or at home with my optimal setup.

4) Timing

One of my all-time favorite study hacks is the Pomodoro technique. Essentially, you focus on one task, study in 25 minute blocks and take 5 minute breaks. It fights procrastination, improves focus and maintains endurance.

 

3 | Obtaining Information

Generally, you’ll be obtaining information in one of two ways as a pre-med – lectures and textbooks. During lectures, most of us follow along with our own copy of the Powerpoint slides open and take notes in the comments section. This is a very passive method of learning. Here are some other options to improve your methods of obtaining information.

1) Writing vs. Typing Notes

Each has its pros and cons. 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 rephrase and organize it in your own words. Writing, in comparison to typing, has also been demonstrated to improve recall, possibly due to the increased motor coordination. When I was in med school, styluses were lacking, and I opted for typing in some classes, and writing on paper for others, particularly for my summary sheets, which we will get to later. Now with the Surface Pro and iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, you can get the best of both worlds. I have another video on how to most effectively take notes with the iPad.

2) Lecture vs. Podcast

Your school may offer audio or video recordings of your lectures, and for me this worked best. However, there are distinct advantages to attending lectures in person.

Lecture: You have a set routine and you’re surrounded by other people who are doing the same thing. It helps reduce distraction and encourages you to be engaged in the lecture, at least more so than listening to a lecture podcast. You’re also able to ask questions in real time.

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. Zoning out with slow speaking lecturers was a big issue for me. That being said, 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 student who would procrastinate with podcasting, stick to attending lectures instead.

3) Rewatching Lectures

This is a complete waste of time. I understand the thought behind it – you want to make sure you didn’t miss anything important and want to reinforce the content. The problem is that rewatching lectures is extremely passive, even more so than attending it the first time. Your time is better spent reviewing the information, synthesizing it, and doing active learning. Do not re-watch the lectures or re-listen to recordings. Use your textbook, other resources, your classmates, or your professor’s office hours if you require clarification.

4) Textbooks

I used to highlight the textbook and read my highlights several times to review before exams, but that’s a terribly passive way to study. Reviewing your PowerPoint slides or Word documents is equally ineffective. Instead, make it as active as you can, even at the time of initial exposure. Using either your computer or a notepad, summarize what you read into your own words. By doing this, you are identifying the important information and organizing it in a way that you will understand – this will ultimately improve recall come test time.

 

4 | Memorization

Memorization is arguably the toughest part of studying, at least for most students. There are a few different methods you can use to memorize the information much faster.

1) Summary Sheets (Condensed Notes)

One of the best ways to memorize is to summarize the information. Let’s say you have three pages of notes. Condense them into one page by organizing and restructuring the information in smaller chunks. And don’t just decrease the font size or adjust the margins. Actually read through your notes carefully and extract the highest yield points and rephrase them again in your own words. This process alone is active learning, and it will reinforce that material and provide you with a condensed study resource to review at a later date.

2 ) Spaced Repetition

One of the most powerful ways to memorize information is spaced repetition. We know that repetition is key to memorization. The idea here is that after each review, you can increase the interval between reviews. For example, you learn information on day zero, then see it again after 24 hours, then see it after 72 hours, etc. Instead of reviewing it every day, you only 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. That’s why I suggest using spaced repetition software such as Anki. I have a playlist of tutorials that go over exactly how to use it. I recommend that you make your own flashcards within Anki 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 also key, because otherwise you won’t be taking advantage of the space repetition.

The beautiful thing about flashcards is you don’t have to sit down and spend 30 or 60 minutes at once. To get through all my cards each day, I would open the Anki app on my phone at any brief moment of downtime. 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 downtime, 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, you just need a few minutes to do a few flashcards.

 

Conclusion

These are all the strategies I honed during medical school. Next, familiarize yourself with the Pomodoro technique, Feynman technique, Memorization techniques. Let me know down in the comments what your favorite study hack is, or if you’d like for me to cover a certain study strategy in an upcoming post.  Happy studying, good luck, and see you next time!
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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hey thanks for the great video. Wondering if you took both notes and made anki cards. It seems like a large time sink compared to taking notes, condensing them then using pre-made anki decks for review.

    1. Depended on the course. In some, I would make Anki cards directly in class while also taking notes on the side (for things I didn’t want to create cards for). In other classes, I took notes and made Anki cards later (much more time consuming). And in other classes, I didn’t make Anki cards at all (flashcards aren’t suited to every subject).

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