Deciding how to work
After more than fourteen years of school and six years of Medicine at University, you’d think I’d have figured out how I work best when it came to studying for exams. Surely after that many years of studying, cramming seemingly endless reams of information into my head for retrieval on the big day, I would know whether I was benefiting most from writing out notes, listening to lectures and podcasts, making flashcards, or reading the textbooks…
This was a constant source of stress for me as each year I would begin the process of walking out into the lapping waters of bottomless information, and not have a clue as to how best to study. Should I try and write everything down? Type it out? Make flashcards? Just listen? Whichever tactic I tried soon became either unmanageable, tedious, or I simply didn’t think I was learning anything from the process. So what did I do?
I thought about what I do when I come to retrieving the information. That is, in exams, whenever I’m trying to remember answers from my brain and wondering why I couldn’t remember medical facts like I could with cat videos or insulting jokes, how was the information presented in my head. Was it remembering the page of notes? Remembering the lecturer’s voice? The diagram on the flashcard?
It turns out that there were three main ways that I was retrieving these facts:
- Remembering answers to previous questions that were similar to the one in front of me
- Recalling specific experiences I’d had on the wards
- Diagrams that I’d drawn and re-drawn until I could do it by heart
- Flashcards that I’d done so many times that I didn’t even have to try and remember them.
It was a very rare occasion that I would remember a piece of information from notes I’d written or textbooks I’d read. So I figured I’d stick to these four categories, and hope that my analysis wasn’t way off..
How I work now
- I spend as much time on the wards as possible. This is largely because final year is meant to be as much of an apprenticeship as possible; you’re learning how to do the job of those a year ahead of you, so you’ll benefit most from observing, trying (and failing) to do the same things. Your brain is very good at remembering experiences that it has because it has so many ways of programming the information; sights, sounds, smells, temperatures, emotions – think of a time you screwed something important up – bet you never had to revise that again!
- I make flashcards. This is largely a convenience thing as you can make one or two in a spare moment, and review them during quiet parts of the day. I use Anki, purely because it’s free on android and you have your cards with you wherever you go.
- Nearer the time, when exams are looming, I talk myself through a topic, while drawing out diagrams. I then use the books to check what I’ve missed, and add the information to the diagram. Then I store the diagram away until next time, and attempt to copy it perfectly. Repeat until smart.
- I teach! You never know information properly until you can teach it to someone who knows nothing about it. If you can explain something simply to a friend or patient, then you truly understand a topic.
Find your own groove
Learning is incredibly personal, and everyone does it differently. Try different methods, see which you like, and more importantly, which ones seem to work, and focus on those, rather than spending time doing ineffective studying that bores you and doesn’t help your exam performance.