There’s a great deal of misinformation and resulting confusion in the world of study strategies and optimization. To this day, I still get frequent questions from students about the relative utility of various study methods. Let’s cover the most popular techniques and go over each of their pros and cons.
First, let’s dispel the most common myth – that you must study harder to do better in class. If you’re already studying a few hours per day, the quality of those study sessions becomes far more important than the total duration. Knowing that, how can we determine what constitutes high-quality studying? Let’s start by discussing which study strategies do not help us, AKA: the Useless.
Passive forms of learning are what we all default to. They’re what we’ve been taught in grade school, and they’re much easier to do than active forms of learning. They feel comfortable, familiar, and allow us to feel good about ourselves and our productivity without having to venture too far out of our comfort zones.
The most common form of passive studying would be re-reading your class notes again and again to reinforce the information. While repetition is certainly important when learning new information, active recall with spaced repetition is far more effective than passive methods.
Another crowd favorite is highlighting in a textbook and simply re-reading those highlights to study the information. Again, passive reinforcement in this manner is very weak and not a good use of your time.
Re-listening to lecture audio recordings is another poor use of time. Generally speaking, any time you are rewatching, rereading, or re-listening to information, you’re exercising passive forms of learning.
Recently one of my followers sent me a video of another YouTuber who has a unique approach to active learning. He recommends you write questions for yourself and skip writing down the answer, as he explains you can look that up later if you forget. I’ll say two things about this. First, I love the emphasis on active recall, which is something that transformed my own studying as a medical student. Second, I see this as a suboptimal and highly compromised implementation of active learning. Allow me to explain.
First, if you write questions for yourself without answers, you’ll get the big picture and gestalt dialed in, but you will miss most of the important details. For a concept-heavy course that’s light on facts, this isn’t a big deal. However, most classes for pre-meds and medical students do have a high number of facts that must be memorized. If you want to perform at the highest level on your MCAT or USMLE, memorizing a large volume of facts is necessary.
Second, there’s an art and science to writing out questions that test your recall. Writing such broad questions is highly inefficient in the context of accelerating learning. Proper implementation of active recall for maximal learning efficiency requires smaller testable pieces of knowledge. Imagine this – you have a question or card asking you to describe 5 elements of a disease process. If you remember 4 but forget 1, you have to do the question again and go over all 5, rather than just reinforcing the one you forgot. As you expand this to hundreds or thousands of concepts, it’s clear that the inefficiency compounds on itself and becomes highly costly.
This technique isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as effective as others, which we’ll get to shortly. I would only recommend this study technique of writing broad questions without detailed answers in two instances. First, the course is high concept heavy, such as some upper-division neuroscience courses. Or second, you have phenomenal natural memory and memorization comes easily to you, which is the only other instance in which I can see this being effective.
Like most of you, I don’t have an amazing memory. It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses so you can intelligently approach studying to take advantage of your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. When it comes to performing well in class or on tests, you can think of three foundational domains: critical thinking, test-taking skills, and memorization. If I’m being honest, I think my critical thinking and test-taking are very well developed, but my natural memorization abilities are nothing special. For that reason, I relied on several advanced memorization techniques to compensate that allowed me to still rank number one in college and medical school in several classes.
Effective learning is comprised of two main elements – comprehension and memorization. It’s best to first comprehend and deeply understand the information before trying to encode it into long term memory. Memorizing first, without understanding, results in a weaker long term grasp of the information. That being said, don’t believe the false claims that by simply understanding information deeply, you’ll never have to memorize a fact. No matter how deeply you understand wound healing in the context of plastic surgery, you still have to memorize that peak tensile strength across a wound occurs at days 42-60 with a magnitude of 80% of the original strength. And yes, you will be pimped on that in the operating room, multiple times.
Step 1 | Comprehension
Again, the first step is to comprehend and deeply understand the information before attempting to commit the information to memory. How should you go about this most effectively?
The first layer is how you interface with the information for the first time. If you enjoy learning from your professor and feel they do an effective job teaching, prioritize attending lecture and being as engaged as possible. If you don’t click with the professor or feel that you learn better from a textbook, online videos, or other resources, consider skipping lecture and prioritize those higher yield resources.
The second layer addresses confusion that remains after first exposure to the information. At this point, you have a few options. First, consider office hours with your professor or TA. Bring an organized list of questions you want to ask them. Second, study with a small group of friends – I recommend only one or two other people, no more than that. This is a perfect opportunity to practice the Feynman technique, which I’ve shown you how to implement most effectively in a previous post. Lastly, consider visiting other resources, such as test prep review books, online videos, Reddit, online forums, or a dedicated and high-quality tutor like the stellar ones available at MedSchoolInsiders.
The third layer involves applying the information. This kills two birds with one stone, as it not only helps you more deeply understand the information, but it’s also one of the most effective ways to memorize. The main tool you should be using here is practice problems. If you’re studying for the MCAT or USMLE Step 1, there are several question banks and practice tests you can choose from. If you’re studying for an upcoming quiz or test in class, you have a few options. You can look to your textbook for practice questions. Alternatively, and even better, take a look at previous year’s exams which will likely be more similar to the test you’ll be taking.
Step 2 | Memorization
Now that you understand the information, it’s time to rapidly consolidate that information straight to your hippocampus for long term memory storage. Again, practice problems are key here, as they not only help you understand the information more deeply, but also require you to apply the information and utilize active recall. Doing so is tremendously powerful in memory consolidation.
The second tool would be spaced repetition software such as Anki. Anki is a free flashcard app you can use on your phone, computer, or tablet. While tremendously powerful, many students have bad experiences with Anki for a few reasons. Here’s how to avoid that.
First, do your flashcards daily. When you fail to do your assigned cards, they pile up quickly, also known as a high review burden, and then you’re discouraged from opening the app ever again.
Second, use good flashcards. I’ve seen many students, and even study experts, making the common mistake of asking a very broad question on the front with long paragraph explanations on the back. This is a terribly ineffective way of using flashcards. You can use pre-made decks, but making your own is the best bet. I’ve gone over the 13 steps to making good flashcards previously. Anki is far from perfect, but it’s the best tool we currently have.
Step 3 | Don’t Forget These Two Considerations
Lastly, all these study techniques can only work effectively when they’re placed within a larger context that facilitates learning.
Regarding study scheduling, understand how your energy and focus waxes and wanes throughout the day. Schedule your study time appropriately for the periods when you can be most focused. Also, understand you cannot study for hours on end without proper breaks. Strategically scheduling chores, exercise, or other necessary daily tasks should be used to your advantage. For example, get your workout in as a break from studying, so you can come back and hit the books with a fresh mind. Or do your chores in the mid-afternoon when you experience a dip in energy.
You may not realize it, but the location in which you study influences your energy levels, ability to focus, emotions, and much more. Be deliberate with all elements in your environment. Do you prefer silence or the bustle of a coffee shop? Do you get distracted at home or does an optimized dual monitor work station make studying more enjoyable? At the end of the day, tailoring a plan and environment to your individual needs will yield the best results.
Getting a handle on your study techniques is one of the most foundational skills in living a fulfilling and balanced life as a student. Understanding how powerfully these skills can transform student lives is why I started Med School Insiders in the first place. I hope this post is helpful, and I wish you guys good luck and happy studying! Let me know with a comment below what else I should cover in an upcoming post. Much love to you all.