How do I develop a plan to study that works for me?
Now that you’ve officially entered the second phase of medical school, it is more important than ever to know your particular learning style. You need to use this time to figure out which study method (flash cards, study guides, mind maps, etc.) works best for YOU. Don’t be afraid to change methods or use more than one – different subjects might require you to use different study methods. The most important thing at this phase is for you to learn the best way for YOU to study, because studying will be a part of your daily routine throughout your medical school career. Make sure you have clear objectives of exactly WHAT you’re going to study. This will help you make more efficient use of your time, which will also help you have a more balanced life since you can’t study 24 hours a day.
When the initial euphoria has worn off and you are in “the grind” of studying, you realize that you’ve entered a new phase… This is the second phase of your medical school experience, where you’ve basically gotten used to medical school so far. There is a certain expectation at this phase that students have their learning style and study routines all figured out… Of course, this is rarely the case. Don’t freak out if you don’t have this down yet, but NOW is the time to figure out what works best for YOU. Every new block poses unique challenges, and with time winding down until the anxiety-inducing USMLE Step 1 exam, students often find themselves in a constant struggle of not just WHAT to study, but HOW to study it.
Know your learning style….
Uncertainty is as much a staple of the medical student psyche in this phase as it is in the first phase of medical school. The most important thing to identify early, and hopefully carry over from the first phase, is your learning style. Though this style is under constant scrutiny with every evaluation, the quicker you can identify how YOU learn efficiently, the more time you’ll allow yourself to master the material and give yourself time to focus on things outside of school. Let’s think about some things…
- Are you a study guide maker?
- A flash card user?
- Do you learn best by using mind maps to connect the dots?
- Does drawing diagrams help with your retention?
These are the questions that you should have answers to, but remember that you don’t necessarily need to be black and white with your methods. You can vary your methods and use more than one technique. Nothing is set in stone, and one technique might work for one subject, but not another.
There are ways of incorporating numerous studying methods for optimal retention, as long as you don’t overwhelm yourself. It is vitally important to become aware of what works best for you early on in your medical school career; studying is part of every medical student’s daily routine as you approach the board exams and prepare for the clinical years. The more effort you spend refining and mastering your learning style, the more you’ll be able to accomplish. Figure out what works for YOU and don’t be afraid to try something new if you don’t see the type of results you want after the first few exams/encounters with patients.
Know your learning objective…
As the information in the pre-clinical curriculum builds, becomes more methodic, and challenges you, it is important to maintain both focus and purpose when you are learning information. “Objectives” are often given at the beginning of a class to help students have a blueprint for what they should take away from the session. These are NOT the type of objectives we want to discuss here…
When you sit down to study a new concept, for example, the porto-caval anastomoses and how/why they present clinically, you should be focused in your approach and give yourself a clear goal. Students will often sit down to study information from the previous day or week without a clear sense of what concepts need to be mastered; this approach lends itself to the 8-hour library days that could easily be condensed to 4 hours. Why would you want to spend 8 hours on something when you could easily get it accomplished in 4 hours? This is also a perfect example of why “knowing your learning style” is so important. If you know HOW to study in a way that is most effective for you, and you know exactly WHAT you are aiming to study, then you will be learning in a manner that will leave you fulfilled and feeling accomplished.
Schedule your time…
Life goes on outside of medical school whether you choose to ignore it or not; your friends get married, you go on fun weekend trips, your parents may visit, etc. Because of all these external factors called “life,” your studying time will be subject to change on a weekly basis. It is important for you to be aware of when you’ll need to move time around for when you’re busy away from your studies, and act accordingly. This is an application of both “knowing your learning objectives” and “knowing your learning style.” For instance, if you know that you’ll be gone for a full weekend, move that weekend’s studying time around and add it to your weekly schedule so that you can go into the weekend prepared (and not worrying about the studying that you’re not doing during the weekend).
By making clear objectives for yourself and knowing how to maximize your studying time, you will be able to adapt your studying to your schedule and not let classwork control your personal life. Everyone needs balance in their lives – even medical students!
- For more on balancing school and lifestyle, check out the “how to balance school with lifestyle” page.