How do you take notes for med school? It’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions by med students.
So how in the world should you take notes for med school? Let’s get into it.
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I’m going to break down one technique I’ve used with my coaching students and other students I’ve worked with the past few years to help you make your notes more effective.
And to make this post a little more helpful, I’m going to explain to you how I would take the notes step-by-step as if I were doing it on my laptop.
One of my favorite ways is called the Q&E method.
The basic way of how most med students take notes is kind of flawed. We go through the syllabus or listen to the lecture and then we have some kind of organization of important information as well as not so important information.
Half the time, we’re regurgitating what the lecturer has said — either in the syllabus, the slides, or both. Over time, we end up with a laptop or a notebook full of information that’s basically your syllabus.
And the motivation to review it is zero, i.e. Unhelpful notes = Zero motivation
The Q&E method is a very unique way of making your learning active from the very start. This includes when you’re reading your syllabus as well as when you’re attending lectures. Now, how you choose to do this varies.
You can do this through pencil and paper, through a word processor, OneNote, through your Mac, you choose.
As you’re going through your syllabus or the new topics that you’re learning, the most important thing you want to ask yourself is, “What’s the big picture question that could be asked?”
Let’s say you’re learning a very complex topic, like a lecture about the antiarrhythmic drugs in cardiology.
Now there’s a lot of detail in there.
It’s very easy for this lecture to become a very memorized heavy one. But I’m going to teach you a different way of how you can have a step-by-step approach to taking notes and how to make sure that you’re going from big picture to the small details in a very systematic way.
What Is The Biggest Piece Of Information?
For most med schools, you’ll have some resources – whether it be your syllabus or your past slides – that will break down the information.
Regardless of how you choose to do it, whether it’s through word doc or pencil and paper, ask yourself, “What is the biggest piece of information that this slide, paragraph, or page is covering?”
For example, with the antiarrhythmic lecture earlier, most lectures may talk about how the heart works, how it paces, how the pacemaker paces, how the non-pacemaker cells in the heart work, and what the action potentials look like.
That way, when they actually explain how these drugs work, you can understand where on the action potential it’s working on. And so you may find that the first page or two is going to break down the different phases of the action potential of the cardiac cell.
Q = Question
While it may be very easy to get overwhelmed by the numbers, channels, and names you have to remember, you really need to just take a step back and consider, “What do I need to learn here first?”
That needs to be your first question. Hence the Q in the Q&E method.
In our example, the first question may be, “How does the action potential in a non-cardiac cell work?”
I will then take that question and put it in my notes.
Now, if you’re having difficulty coming up with a big picture question like this, then pay attention to the titles of the slides, the transitions, or even the headings in your syllabus lectures.
E = Evidence
The next step to this process would be to answer the question in the broadest sense possible without getting too detailed. This is the E for Evidence.
So for example, for the AP or the action potential of a non-pacing cell, I would need to know that there are four phases.
I need to know the order of the channels that work, i.e. the sodium channel followed by the potassium channel, followed by calcium channel, followed again by potassium channel. And then it just repeats.
Ideally, for something like this where you’re using an actual word processor, you may have to actually add the drawing into your notes or a screenshot of something from the lecture.
Benefit Of The Q&E Method
The benefit of using this Q&E method, is when you’re now reviewing your notes, you can simply go to the questions and say, “Can I answer this? A week from now can I still tell how the action potential of a non-pacing cell work?”
If in case I don’t know the answer, I’ll know that it will be in the next bits of details in my notes.
In this sense, I don’t have to actually try to quiz myself on my notes, my notes are quizzing me from the get-go.
This forces you to ask yourself, “Is a piece of detail in your syllabus or slide actually relevant for you to be able to answer the question?
You can explain to yourself how the action potential in these cells works without saying the names of a specific channel. That may be going to the next kind of tertiary level question.
Q&E Within Your Q&E
You can have a Q&E within your Q&E notes.
For example, if you’re asking yourself a big level question, the next bit of evidence should be able to answer that question. But then you can add a follow-up question of something a little bit more detailed.
For example, you can add the question: What channel dictates phase three?
You should be able to know that it’s the potassium channel.
You can ask similar questions. This way, when you’re looking at your notes again a week from now, not only can you add those broad-level questions, you can also answer these more detailed questions while being able to go step-by-step.
So I encourage you, as you’re going through your new lectures for an upcoming class, look at each piece of information and ask yourself, “Is this a broad piece of information, or is this very detailed?”
“How can I form this next chapter, this next few paragraphs in the form of a question, and then be able to add the evidence later?”
In a more simplified format:
- Is it broad or detailed info?
- How can I form the next info into a question?
- How do I add evidence?
Mark Important Details Then Do Q&E
Now, if you’re somebody who struggles with transitioning between taking notes and reading the material, I encourage you to be able to go through your slides or syllabus first, then either indicate the important details through highlighting or a specific sign.
For example, you can either put a star next to a big level topic or an underline near some piece of detail. So that when you review it, you can do the Q&E method for all of the stars first and put those in your notes. And then you can add those underlines or highlights, whichever you choose to do, later on.
I’ve done a variation of this even when I was a med student.
For example, I would actually write down my big level questions on the margins of my actual syllabus lecture, then transition them over to my typed version on Word docs, which was much nicer and cleaner.
The end result was the same, which is that I not only had a lecture on my Word doc, but I actually had lists of questions for that lecture.
So whenever I had to review it, all I had to do was pull those up and if I could answer them perfectly, I understood it.
If I didn’t, it meant that maybe I needed to go back to the resource — whether it be the syllabus or the slides or just rewatching the lecture.
This is a much more active way of going through your syllabus or new material for your classes and having something you can also very easily come back to.
So if you’re somebody who doesn’t like flashcards, essentially what you’re doing here is creating a question bank for that specific lecture. And every time you miss something, you can now have the option of highlighting, whether you’re doing it on your Word doc or on your actual piece of paper, and actually even adding additional pieces of notes or analogies so that you can then understand it even better the second time you have to review it.
Well, the Q&E method is one of my favorite ways on how to take notes in medical school, and I can tell you it’s very effective.
You can do this on your flashcards. You can do this on a Word doc. You can do this on a notebook. And it simply starts with a question-first approach instead of just taking notes on whatever everyone is saying.
So if your professor is saying something in lecture, try thinking, “How can I rephrase what he’s teaching me in the form of a question?”
What he does say in the lecture is actually the answer.
So if he’s talking about HIV medications and telling you a specific fact about it, how can you write that in the form of a question and then add the details afterward?
It’s a great way for you to be able to come back and quiz yourself to the point that learning this will feel much more natural.
But that’s all I have for now for the Q&E method in this post. Did you find this method helpful? Do you still find yourself asking how to take notes in medical school with these pointers?
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Did you enjoy this post about how to take notes in medical school? If you did, go ahead and give these posts a read as well:
- How To Study In Medical School [Ultimate Guide]
- How To Study For Shelf Exams For Your Rotations Effectively [How To Get Honors]
- How To Use Picmonic To Study For Clinical Rotations [How To Get Honors]
- Shelf Exams Ultimate Guide (What You Need To Know)
- A More Efficient Way To Study In Medical School
- How To Study With Bad Lectures & Still Get Good Grades
- 10 Best Focus Apps [To Help You Focus When Studying]
Until the next one my friend…