Evidenced-Based Study Strategies for Medical School

Ryan Kraemer, MD, FACP
Associate Professor of Medicine
Assistant Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency Program
University of Alabama Birmingham

You have probably spent more time studying over the past few months than at almost any other time in your life, but are you using the most effective study methods? In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, cognitive scientists Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel tell us, “People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways.” You see, the most effective evidence-based strategies are not intuitive; therefore, many students don’t use them. In this post, I’ll cover the study strategies you can use right now to succeed on your next test and build your knowledge base for success on the Step exams and your third-year clerkships.

Don’t reread; instead, quiz yourself: Rereading notes is one of the least productive learning strategies. It leads to temporary familiarity with the material but not significant memory. Instead, use the most powerful learning strategy: retrieval practice. Retrieval practice (that is, recalling facts or concepts from memory) should be used for any concept you want to remember for more than 24 hours. Numerous studies have shown that when students are given material and asked to read it several times, they remember significantly less of the material days later than other students who read the material once and then recalled from memory what they just read. You can use flashcard software, such as Anki, or you can simply cover up part of your notes and recall the material from memory. Alternatively, take out a blank sheet of paper and write down the main points of what you have read. To learn, you must practice retrieving the knowledge from your memory. Testing yourself is key.

Space your learning: Instead of studying one concept until you have completely memorized it, you should study it some, then study something else, then come back to the first concept later to study it more. Spacing out your retrieval practice is vital for long-term memory formation. It seems less focused, but the result is longer-lasting knowledge.

To memorize, give meaning: The human brain has a difficult time remembering disconnected facts. Instead, we are wired to remember stories and associations. Suppose you want to remember the five features of a specific concept. In that case, it will be much easier to remember a mnemonic device or a picture that organizes these five features than just trying to memorize five disconnected items.

To learn, sleep: During sleep, our brain consolidates recently learned material into long-term memories, so don’t skimp on sleep to study more. Having trouble sleeping? Google “sleep hygiene” for tips.

Set a routine: Given the quantity and pace of material during medical school, it is essential to establish a daily study routine instead of just studying before tests. Make sure you are studying in a comfortable place that is quiet and free from distractions. Turn off your e-mail and phone notifications, which will interrupt your thoughts and lead to less efficient studying. Instead, check in with e-mail and texts for a 5-minute break every hour or two. Also, make sure to include some time in your schedule for personal wellness. Whether it is exercising, talking with friends or family, or taking a walk outside, your studying will be more effective when you incorporate personal wellness into your routine.

Remember, the most effective learning strategies feel harder in the moment, but the results are undeniable. I hope you have learned some helpful tips to succeed, and if you want to take your learning to the next level, read the book Make It Stick over the December break.