I still remember interviewing for medical school and listening to current students tell me about the ridiculous amount of hours they would study. Me being me I immediately started to think about how I would be able to cut those hours in half. I knew there must be a way to spend less time studying in medical school with similar if not better results.
Before I even attempted to become efficient, it was first important to learn how I studied best. I remembered what worked in college but I still needed to pinpoint what worked best for me in medical school.
The first 2 months, I would be waking up early, going to class, and studying until 8-10PM. That ended up being about 8-11 hours of studying every day! I definitely didn’t want to keep that a trend.
As the first few quizzes and exams went by I was able to identify how well I was doing and what techniques were getting me to those desired grades. Now I have a solid method that seems to always work for me.
Before I discuss my strategies I’d like to first say that this may not work everyone. Perhaps there is still a few pieces of advice in this post which you can add to your own plan.
Below are the steps I use to efficiently study less than 5 hours a day.
1. Find the resources that work best for you:
As soon as I was able to pinpoint strategies that worked for me, I started to remove the “fluff” techniques. Fluff techniques are studying techniques that we do but end up contributing little to our understanding of the material.
I found that most of my understanding of the material came from the slides. Instead, I was wasting time making outlines, reading the syllabus over and over, and taking physical notes.
I thus applied the 80/20 principle which states that 80% of your results come from your 20% of the work. Everything that wasn’t in that 20% was no longer essential in my study plan.
Another breakthrough for me during my second semester was when I found a book called Medical School 2.0.
The book, which is written by a physician, discusses how you can you use active learning and high yield content to decrease your studying time to only 3-4 hours a day.
I’ve used a lot of the study techniques he discusses in the book and I’ve found myself obtaining the same, if not better grades, with less time. To learn more about the book and what others had to say about it, check it out here:
The book helped me identify many new techniques, but I found even more efficient ways while still keeping the grades that I want.
Deciding Your Resources:
For each lecture students often have way too many options to learn from. They can use the syllabus, slides, lectures, review books, and other online resources. Yes, it’s exciting to have all these as potential resources, but we can’t use all of them all the time.
It’s a common sight to find students use the syllabus, followed by the slides, and finally the lectures. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, you can reduce your time by taking out the resources that are not in your 80%.
For me, I prefer the slides over the syllabus and lecture. I prefer the lecture over the syllabus, thus I rarely use the syllabus when I’m studying. There are some caveats which I discuss at the end.
2. Using Anki to Learn the Lectures:
My methods for using Anki stray from the typical making of flashcards. My current use of Anki has been influenced a lot by the Medical School 2.0, but I’ve added and taken away a few things here and there.
As previously stated, I decided that slides work best for me. Next, I use Anki to make flashcards from the slides. The unique thing is that it takes me 5-10 minutes to make flashcards for an entire lecture! Here are the steps (with pictures) that I use to make my flashcards.
Attend lecture and annotate additional information on the slide. Below are examples of slides where I added in information from the lecturer, as well as highlighted anything I thought they specified.
2. Next using a screenshot tool, which comes with many PDF readers, I make the title of the slides to be the question of the flashcard. Here’s an example:
3. Next, I will use the material on that slide to be the answers for that flashcard.
4. I’ll often pair a few slides that deal with the same topic into one flashcard. Below I have an example of slides that discussed liver enzymes, so I put them both together.
Update: Many people have displayed concerns about having too much for one flashcard. It’s perfectly fine to have 1-2 facts per card vs. the way I’ve suggested. I’ve become good at ignoring the details on the first few passes and then focus on the nuances of each slide later. If you find yourself struggling or overwhelmed it’s okay to make them into more manageable chunks.
5. After making my flashcards, I usually have about 15-20 cards per lecture: Here is a list of flashcards for my most recent classes.
An essential note to remember is that I’m not trying to learn the material when I’m making the flashcards. I’m simply trying to organize the material based on the topics that are discussed.
3. Learning The Material:
The purpose of the first two steps was to select what’s in my 80% and then to use flashcards to make that information into condensed flashcards.
While it may seem like I’m just memorizing the slides, what I’m really doing is gathering all the information into bite-size pieces. Every disease or drug will have 1-3 flashcards for it. Thus my understanding of the topic is not disconnected between flashcards, but rather cohesive since all of it is learned at once.
For example, one of the slides may be on Crohn’s disease. Rather than having a flashcard about symptoms and treatment on separate slides, I do my best to keep that information together. Once that flashcard appears, not only should I know what the disease is, but should also be able to explain the management of it as well.
Now won’t trying to remember 3-4 slides per flashcard become difficult? Not really. Generally, a lecturer will have a decent flow to their presentation. Hence there should be a similar learning process of the material as well.
How do you learn the flashcards then? Honestly, there is no right way. Go back to doing what works best for you. Regardless of whether you understand things by writing them down, talking the concepts out loud, or some other way, you can use those techniques to learn the flashcards.
It’s critical to not expect to learn the flashcard on the first or second pass. If you’ve attended or read the lecture, some material will be familiar, while others will still be unclear. Anything important on your flashcard that you can’t recall you simply revisit using the “again” or “good” option.
Every time you see the card you will be more familiar with that topic. You’ll eventually be able to mark them off as “easy”.
So how long does this take? I’ve become adept at making my flashcards and staying focused during the learning phase. Thus I can finish each lecture in about 20-30 minutes on my first pass. If you attend lecture (assuming you have 3 hours of class every day) that’s:
3 hours of lecture + 30 min making flashcards + 1.5 hours spent learning = 5 hours of studying total!
Now anyone feeling daring can accelerate this process often by streaming lectures, at 1.5x or 2x, which reduces that 3 hours into 1.5-2 hours. That’s a grand total of 3.5-4 hours!
4. Studying for Exams:
As test and quizzes come around, use the weekends and the days to go through the old material. Decide how you want to split up the material.
I would tend to go through 4-5 lectures in the first few days of studying – become really comfortable with the topics.
Then 2-3 days prior to the quiz/exam, I would start to go through all my flashcards twice a day. Because I’ve seen these cards countless times by now, going through all the material takes 2.5-3 hours each pass. I could thus get through 3 passes a day on those last few days. The day before an exam I’ll ease off to one pass and call it quits.
Some caveats before I close. Sometimes the slides are awful and thus I have to read the syllabus to obtain the information. Even more annoying is when both the slides and syllabus are terrible. This will unfortunately happen, but find the best resources you can to learn those materials.
You may also have more classes than just 3 every day. 5 hours a day may no longer be possible then. Regardless, you can still find some use of the above techniques to make your study more efficient.
This was a brief step-by-step display on how I study.
What makes this method so effective is that you’re testing yourself to learn and not learning for a test. The more you see the flashcards the more familiar you will be with the material.
In addition, you will be much more comfortable answering questions since you now have a broad understanding of each individual topic.
I know that this may not work for everyone. In fact, many of you already may have a plan that’s already working for you. If so, stick with it! Perhaps you can use the 80/20 rule and improve on what you’re already doing. The goal of this post was to share what I do, and hopefully, there’s something in my methods that you can take away.
Thank you so much for reading. I hope this was helpful in some shape or form to some of you! Please like, share it with a friend, and don’t forget to subscribe below.
Want to Thrive in Medical School?
I wrote a 70-page Ebook about excelling during your first two years in medical school. I use the tips and techniques I wish I was told since day one! Use these techniques to decrease your study time, improve your grades, and minimize your stress!