For those of you highlighter fanatics out there, it might be time to put down your color-coded notes and start making some flashcards.
“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as re-reading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance,” said Dr. John Dunlosky, professor of psychology and director of experimental training at Kent State University, about the study techniques that today’s students use.
It’s a no-brainer that your journey to becoming a physician requires studying, and a lot of it. Whether it’s organic chemistry, Spanish vocabulary, or the dreaded MCAT, being a premed or post-bacc student means being constantly tested on your ability to recall facts and work through complex problems.
Unfortunately, those studying pressures don’t end when you get into medical school. NBME exams during the preclinical years, the infamous USMLE Step 1 exam, and shelf exams during clerkships mean more studying and more test-taking. And don’t forget about recertification exams every ten years once you’re a practicing physician.
If you haven’t found your style yet, or if you’re looking for a better method, you’re in luck. There is a whole field of study that is studying how to study: neuroeducation.
Neuroeducation, or educational neuroscience, is a burgeoning field that combines the disciplines of cognitive neuroscience and education to study the biological processes that take place when a person learns. Although a relatively young science, researchers have already made significant discoveries about how to optimize our ability to learn.
For example, let’s look at a 2013 study called “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques” published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science by Dr. John Dunlosky. In this study, the authors evaluated the ten most commonly used learning techniques:
Elaborative interrogation: Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true
Self-explanation: Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
Summarization: Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
Highlighting/underlining: Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
Keyword mnemonic: Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
Imagery for text: Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening
Re-reading: Re-studying text material again after an initial reading
Practice testing: Self-testing with flash cards or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material
Distributed practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
Interleaved practice: Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session
Recognize one of these techniques as your preferred study method? Well, you might be surprised to learn that not all study methods are created equal.
The study authors found that highlighting and underlining materials, rereading, summarization, keyword mnemonics and imagery use were the least effective study techniques, despite their ubiquitous use by students. These methods are considered passive forms of learning, which the study authors argue do not sufficiently engage the brain’s memory-retention pathways and thus do not promote long-term effective learning.
In contrast, the study found that practice testing, which includes flashcards, practice problems and sample tests, was a highly effective study technique. The study also found that distributed practice, which involves studying material in short sessions over a longer period of time, was a very effective way to learn.
So. although it may seem that the 2:00 AM cram session before your molecular biology final was effective, research shows that it would have been much more effective to spread out that learning over the whole semester, using flashcards and sample problems in your study routine rather than the repetitive reading of class notes.
And, when you consider that you need to remember that same information about histones and functional groups for the MCAT, it is much better for your journey to medical school — and your well-being — to retain that information for as long as possible.
So, what does this mean for you as a hopeful and hard-working student? As two medical students wrote on in-Training: “When you sit down at your desk, remember that active practice and simulating testing and evaluative conditions will yield the most effective learning. Seek out practice questions, create and answer flashcards, even teaching a fellow classmate and having them ask you questions. By using both effective learning modalities and repetition, you will be working with biology, and not against it.”
Remember that, as a premed or a postbacc student, the internet is your friend when it comes to finding new study resources. There are a number of free platforms and programs that allow you to make virtual flashcards that can be stored in the cloud for access anywhere, including on your phone. It’s good to get in the habit of reviewing flashcards whenever you have a free moment — on the subway, or in line for coffee.
If you’re interested in distributed practice, but aren’t sure where to start, there are a number of free applications that will do the hard work for you. Just search for spaced repetition flashcard programs and choose your favorite. These programs allow you to create flashcards and will automatically space them out in time depending on how well you can remember the information. As long as you can commit to reviewing your flashcards every day, these programs will serve you well in your studies.
And don’t forget to search for practice questions and pre-prepared study resources. Remember: there are plenty of premed and postbacc students out there who have the same questions you do about studying. No need to reinvent the wheel — find resources that others have used successfully and adopt them into your study routine.
Of course, make sure to drink plenty of water, get an adequate amount of sleep, and get some exercise. There’s no sense in studying if you’re not healthy and feeling your best. Best wishes of your journey into medicine!