Hi, my name’s Sunny, and I’m in my sixth & final year at the Palacký University Faculty of Medicine. I have spent a lot of time over the years trying to work out how to learn and revise effectively. Hopefully, this article will provide you with some new ideas to try out and if you have any questions please feel free to contact me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or drop me a message on Instagram via my account @sunnyyydev.
Intro The jump from A-Levels (UK pre-higher education exams) to University is something I heard a lot about it, but I didn’t realise the size of that jump until 3 weeks into my degree when I was tasked to learn the anatomy of the vertebra. As simple as this was (after passing), after reviewing the course content so far, I was completely overwhelmed. The sheer amount we had already covered was mind-blowing. I started to panic and sat down to make notes on paper & Microsoft Word to try and start recapping, only to rapidly realise this was an impossible feat to achieve. I felt lost.
At the start of my course, I set myself some reading, one of which was a book called, ‘How to Succeed at Medical School'. Although I read the book, as someone who is just a plain slow-reader, I struggled to absorb the advice it provided. I wish instead my university had given us a simple document with different methods of revision, specifically tailored to medicine.
I hope this article will help you accumulate some ideas on how to best cope with the quantity of complex information all medics are required to learn. To start, I will discuss some theories regarding how we can best learn and retain information, then I will give some specific examples of methods that worked for me, and others on my course.
Active Recall The concept behind active recall is fairly clear, if you ask yourself questions and force yourself to answer from memory before you see the answer, you are significantly more likely to retain the information (The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning). Active recall can be incorporated into many different study styles including flashcards, mind-maps and even basic note-taking. My friend introduced me to a powerful piece of software called Notion HQ to take my notes. Using this software, you can easily add toggles, allowing you to write questions and put the answer in your drop-down, forcing you to attempt the question before you can view the answer.
Spaced Repetition Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique, normally done using flashcards. The concept is that by reconsolidating information at ever-increasing intervals, it becomes ingrained in your long-term memory promoting true learning of information.
Attempting to do this manually using physical flashcards can be very challenging, thankfully ANKI is an amazing piece of computer software (free for desktop, and on android mobile devices) that utilises both spaced repetition and active recall.
Learning with Others This includes group study sessions where you collaborate, discuss ideas and teach concepts to one another. Teaching is by far one of the most effective ways to learn as it promotes a deeper understanding of the topic. Setting up a study group where students teach one session each week is a really effective way to learn and utilise the knowledge that all of you have. Having a group of friends which you are used to learning with, will also help when you have practical exams/OSCE’s as you will be able to practice with one another and be used to giving constructive criticism and corrections.
Not only is this an excellent way to learn (as it is a very active process) but it also a good way to start to network and build connections with others.
The ideas above are learning approaches and can be applied to various methods be that flashcards, quick diagrams, etc, so for the second part of this post I have shared some methods students I know use and have found effective.
Mind-maps After seeing a friend use this a lot, I learnt to adapt with my own mind-maps a bit late, starting to realise the usefulness of these diagrams early will go a long way. They are a quick way of getting down a lot of information and force you to think laterally and build connections. Used properly they can give you a ‘3D awareness’ of topics and an understanding as to how many seemingly separate ideas connect to form a bigger picture. There are some amazing apps to create mind-maps on your computer – SimplyMindLite is one my friend uses and has found really good (is also apparently free for apple desktop).
Drawings/Cartoons Creating diagrams for topics is another method that forces you to actively engage. For anatomy, I used to draw every bone, add in shadowing and annotate. It took way too much time & effort, but it did help me visualise and see through my work in memory. In my immunology module, for most cell-cell interaction (e.g. T and B-Cell Co-operation) I created a cartoon diagram showing the process, I did the same for some complex cancer pathways. I could then practice drawing these cartoons whilst audibly talking myself through the process. They don’t need to be complicated (mine were literally just triangles, squares and circles) just something easy and quick to get down on paper.
I love using a pen and paper, however, tablets are amazing for this style of revision as it enables easy correction of mistakes. Whiteboards for me are also so helpful and a more tactile way of drawing these diagrams and testing yourself.
Past Papers Question papers are the holy grail of revision, but I know not every med school provides questions to practice with. If you do have access, learn the style of questions and answers they want. Examiners would have made their content available in their style for a reason and will examine you in that exact way, so learn it. If you don’t have access from the university, try asking the upper years. It’s always a good tip to respect and be friends with your senior medics. They can show you relevant resources for the exact exams you’re taking and give solid advice on how to present oneself. Also, once you have those resources given, try not to hide them from your friends/colleagues. Everyone is in the same boat, there’s no competition to becoming a doctor unless you want to be a bad one.
Note Taking If you are a person who loves creating notes and having a document with all your information in it then think carefully about which software you use. I have already mentioned Notion, but Evernote and Google docs are some other powerful software examples. Play around with how you lay out your notes (e.g. Cornell, Outlining, or Boxing and Bulleting method) and ensure you have clear titles, headings and summary points for each lecture.
Audio-notes This is a more unusual study method, however several of my friends use it and have had great success. It can either be speaking notes out-loud as you create them, dictating notes and using transcription software, or audibly speaking your notes and saving them as an audio file to playback to yourself. Taking notes in this manner is a good way of breaking up how you study, and if you’re fidgety like me, saying my notes out-loud whilst I walk around my room/house is really helpful (but be prepared for your flatmates to think you’re mad).
Summary The one thing I hope you take away from this article is as follows: try lots of different techniques, and don’t be afraid to switch it up. Having a diverse range of study methods will help you tackle different problems and topics e.g. Mind-maps might work amazing for clinical cases and pathways, but Spaced Repetition Flashcards e.g. ANKI works better for facts and definitions. There’s no right or wrong method, just know what’s available out there and find the best one(s) for you.
Good luck with your studies, and I hope this was helpful!
Arinjoy (Sunny) Dev is a final year medical student, from the UK, at Palacky University and has interests in Emergency and Military Medicine. He was previously the PEPA President and is currently the Vice-Chair for UIMS.