Written by Holly @BecomingaDr Team
First Published: 2 September 2020
Hi, my name’s Holly, and I am about to start my third year of medicine at the University of Birmingham. I have spent a lot of time trying to work out how to learn and revise effectively, partly due to the fact I’m dyslexic, so a lot of more traditional techniques (e.g. reading a textbook and writing things out) don’t work so well for me. 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 @miscellaneousmedic.
The jump from A-Levels to University is something I heard a lot about it, but I didn’t realise the size of that jump until 6 weeks into my degree, when I went to review the content so far and was completely overwhelmed. The sheer amount we had already covered was mind-blowing. I started to panic and sat down to make notes on Microsoft Word to try and start recapping and rapidly realised this was an impossible feat to achieve. I felt lost.
Before I started my course, my university set us some reading, one of which was a book called, ‘How to Succeed at Medical School'(1). Although I read the book, as someone with dyslexia I struggled to absorb the advice it provided. I wish instead we had been given 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.
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) (2). Active recall can be incorporated into many different study styles including flashcards, mind-maps and even basic note taking. I use 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 (see images below)
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. For a more in-depth look at this brilliant software have a look at this article, also on the blog.
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 (3) as it promotes a deeper understanding of the topic. Setting up a study group where students teach one session each a 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 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 a various number of study 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.
I love mind-maps, 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 I use and have found really good (is also free for apple desktop)
Creating diagrams for topics is another method that forces you to actively engage. For my immunology module, for every cell-cell interaction (e.g. T and B-Cell Co-operation) I created a cartoon diagram showing the process, I did the same for 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 are also helpful (most library study rooms have huge whiteboards that you can utilise) and a more tactile way of drawing these diagrams.
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 they ask and the style of answers they want. If you don’t have access from the university try asking some older medics as there may be relevant resources for you.
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 layout your notes (e.g. Cornell, Outlining, or Boxing and Bulleting method) and ensure you have clear titles, headings and summary points for each lecture.
This is a more unusual study method, however several of my close 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 as an audio file to play back 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 housemates to think you’re mad)
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 work better for facts and definitions. Good luck with your studies, and I hope this was helpful!
1: Evans, D. and Brown, J., 2015. How to Succeed At Medical School. 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
2: Karpicke, J. and Roediger, H., 2008. The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), pp.966-968.
3.Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R., 2013. The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), pp.281-288.