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How To Read Textbooks In Medical School [Efficiently And Effectively]

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Numerous medical books may have piled up on your study table, waiting for you to dive in. However, going through these materials will only be as efficient as expected if you know how to read textbooks effectively.

Nevertheless, you can worry less because I will guide you to several tips on how you can read and retain your medical lessons. So, without further ado, grab something for you to note as we begin!

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Tip #1 Prepare Your Brain Before Reading

Mental priming or mentally preparing yourself is the first thing you can do before diving into your medical textbooks. If you skip this, your brain can get overwhelmed by what it must absorb in one shot.

Hence, you may begin this method by looking into the chapters to know what you need to read. You can also read the title, headings, learning objectives, review questions, and summary if there is one.

Aside from that, you can skim the terminologies used in the textbook. You can also glance at the main ideas, flow charts, diagrams, and graphics.

You can also talk to yourself about what you think the topics are about. It will let you identify what you already know and do not.

With this method, you can get a general overview of the textbook. It prepares you and lets you absorb essential ideas easier because your brain has already seen them beforehand.

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Tip #2 Read Actively Instead Of Reading Passively

If you have used to blandly reading textbooks the way they are, you might be doing it wrong. You can notice by doing this that you often need help understanding something from the pages or knowing the book’s significance.

I recommend reading it actively instead of being passive about it. You can adjust how you study it depending on the topic or alter your reading speed based on the difficulty. 

To explain it further, check these things below that may help ensure your reading session is always efficient.

  1. Get a pen or pencil and highlighter whenever you read. You can choose bright colors like orange, yellow, and green because they are more attention-grabbing and have a higher chance of getting remembered.
  2. Highlight or underline the main ideas only. Refrain from putting colors on the entire paragraph because you may not find the necessary information quickly.
  3. Emphasize crucial words, terminologies, phrases, names, and formulas. You can also note statements or opinions.
  4. Write your ideas, reactions, and annotations on every topic.
  5. Put a question mark on parts you are still learning about.

Tip #3 Analyze The Thought Pattern Of The Textbook

Most authors use different thought patterns in their medical textbooks. Some of the most popular ones include:

  1. Cause and effect
  2. Process
  3. Classification
  4. Problem and Solution
  5. Factual-statement
  6. Experiment-instruction

In this case, it is better to analyze which one the author of your book has used throughout the chapters. You can recognize these patterns by looking at the transition or signal words.

Once you do that, you can quickly understand the topics because of the well-organized information, ideas, and thoughts. You will also find recalling everything you have read easier and faster. 

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Tip #4 Write Notes Every Chapter

Let us go back to the second tip, where you have highlighted and marked the main ideas of your textbook. Now, you can use these to shorten the length of the entire chapter by rewriting what is only necessary. 

You can get a new notebook, any piece of paper, an electronic application, or a Word document for creating your notes. You can also choose whichever method you prefer, such as the following:

Cornell Method

The Cornell Method is among the most popular ways of taking notes. It perfectly works by writing the ideas in the center space, while the left-hand part is for labeling thoughts, adding keywords or cues, and noting details.

This method is systematic, organized, simple, and efficient to use. Its format also saves time because you can quickly jot down the concept and ideas without worries!

Mapping Method

Mapping can be a complex yet helpful method of creating notes. Since it uses graphics to relate one fact or idea to another, you may need to use your comprehension and concentration skills to do it correctly.

Nevertheless, mapping aims to maximize your active participation and boosts your critical thinking skills. It assists you in tracking your lectures visually and provides immediate knowledge because everything is easily visible and understandable.

Additionally, this method lets you edit your notes. You can add numbers, marks, and colors to make it more organized.

You can also write the main points on larger-scaled figures to see them immediately when you look at your map. Lastly, reviewing this may ask you to restructure your thoughts, further forcing you to check your understanding continuously of the textbook.

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Outlining Method

Like the mapping method, outlining will only be effective and well-organized if you have done it right. It focuses on writing records and relationships, reducing the need for editing and making it easy to review.

Nonetheless, to do this, you must begin with the general topic on the left part of your paper. The specific ideas will then follow below by getting indented. 

You can use dashes or indent the ideas simply without putting numbers, letters, and Roman numerals.

Sentence Method

Another common way of taking notes is the Sentence Method. Here, you will write new thoughts, topics, and facts on a separate line, numbered.

This method can be more organized than writing long paragraphs. Yet, although it is shorter than the latter, it is still detailed and informative. 

Charting Method

Lastly, the charting method works best if your required lecture format is chronological or distinct. You can draw columns and label the table with appropriate headings.

Then, you can write the information from the textbook into the corresponding heading on the table. With that, you can track the ideas easily while reducing the amount of writing. 

The charting method is also advisable if you want to memorize facts and study different comparisons and relationships.

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Tip #5 Turn Your Formulas Into Words

Your medical textbooks may also contain formulas in some science lessons. With that, you can write them down or express them in your words to understand and remember them better.

Tip #6 Take Time To Understand New Vocabulary

You may encounter new words as you read the topics on your material. You may be unfamiliar with their meanings, making learning more confusing.

You can list these terminologies with other suffixes, prefixes, roots, symbols, acronyms, characters, and signs necessary for notations and abbreviations. You can also add their definitions if needed.

You can do this tip by getting index cards or allotting a separate space in your notebook. If you do not prefer to write them by hand, you can use electronic notes or documents to note them down.

Tip #7 Set Timer For Every Reading Session

Setting a timer or giving yourself a deadline is advisable when you want to stay focused or are short on time. Instilling discipline around this prevents procrastination, avoids distractions, and prioritizes reading.

If you want to practice effective time management, you can use the Pomodoro technique.

Here, you will read for 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break. You can also personalize the time, such as reading for an hour and resting for 15 minutes.

pomodoro technique

Tip #8 Do Not Forget To Take A Break

I understand that you aim to finish your entire textbook immediately. However, allow yourself to breathe between reading sessions.

Taking a break will save you from burning out. It prevents you from getting tired and losing focus on your material.

So, rest when your body tells you to do so, or your brain will not understand anything about your lessons. 

In this case, you can casually do stretching, eat, or wash your face. It will assist you in relaxing your eyes and refreshing your mind before going back on track!

Tip #9 Ask Questions And Reflect

Reading the textbook alone may not provide you with enough information and knowledge. It is better to ask yourself questions and reflect on what you have encountered in the book.

For instance, you can question how such an occurrence happens. Then, you can give your answers based on what you studied to ensure you fully understand its concept.

On the other hand, you may also explain what you learned out loud. You can opt to use simple language to make it more understandable. 

If you ever find anything you must improve, polish them before reading the next chapter or moving to the next topic.

Tip #10 Recall What You Have Read

After doing everything I mentioned above, the last thing you may accomplish is recalling or reviewing the essential ideas of the textbook. This tip is crucial because you may forget everything you have read if you leave them like that.

You can start by recalling the subheadings, diagrams, and concepts. You can also draw the tables, illustrations, and graphs without copying your notes. 

Once done, you can check your materials to see if you get them correctly. If not, you can read again and practice until you memorize them.

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How Can You Retain What You Have Read?

Since you already know how to read textbooks, the next question you can have is, “How can you ensure you retain everything you read?” 

Sit back and relax because I will provide you with some ways you can nail that!

Spaced Repetition

Cramming is one of the most common reasons students fail to study efficiently and retain what they have read. It is widely different from spaced repetition, which aims to memorize new information for long-term retention instead of learning in a short period, leading to quick forgetting.

Spaced repetition is a way of reviewing materials at regular intervals. It allows you to revisit your notes before you forget them, helping you remember everything in the long run.

For instance, you can start the learning process with short intervals, such as one hour, four hours, or one day. Meanwhile, you can make the intervals longer (e.g., four days, one week, or two weeks) as you reread the textbook constantly.

However, since you can be familiar with some subjects and not with others, you can personalize your system depending on your knowledge about the topics.

More widely spaced intervals work better for familiar materials, while shorter intervals are for less familiar ones.

One tool for spaced repetition is Anki. Learn more by checking out this article: Keys To Studying With Anki [Med School Tips]

Testing Effect

Using the testing effect will open the doors for actively thinking about the main concepts of the textbook. Rather than merely rereading the material, answering various tests will improve knowledge retention and strengthen underlying knowledge.

In this method, you can answer every practice test at the end of every chapter. If nothing is available, you can make yourself an exam with slightly easy to complex questions.

Only by then you are forcing your brain to come up with answers. However, if you get them incorrectly, you can review them again using active methods, such as making flashcards and visual aids.

There is no lying that you may get tired by testing yourself frequently. Nonetheless, I advise you to see this method as a crucial learning opportunity that will help you instill in your mind everything you need to master!

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Memory Palace

A Memory Palace is an imaginary place that allows you to store mnemonic images. It lets you associate a location with the things you need to memorize.

To help you create your Memory Palace, you can follow these easy steps below:

  1. Think of a specific place you are familiar with or is your favorite. It can be either an imaginary location or an actual one, such as your bedroom, classroom, park, or somewhere you know.
  2. List down a few distinct spots or “loci” in that place. For example, you can think of your bed, desk, lamp, bookshelf, and closet if you choose your bedroom as the location.
  3. Associate each spot with the terminologies you need to memorize. In that instance, you can use the images to remember the terms.

Notably, it is better if each spot is unique because they will make your brain recall them more. Since our minds love playing with exciting images in familiar settings, the ideas will stick for the long term.

Still and all, remember not to pressure yourself about thinking images. You can use whatever place comes to mind!

Interleaved Practice

Have you ever experienced reading the first topic and felt worried because you may lack time to study the lesson on the 200th page? If yes, you can try this interleaved practice to help you learn many concepts without sacrificing retention.

Generally, medical students read textbooks according to the order of the topics on the table of contents. They use the traditional model where you master each lesson through a block or massed practice.

This strategy makes sense because it allows you to achieve proficiency in one skill before moving to the next. However, it falls short that you cannot learn the others without mastering the first one.

Hence, interleaving enables you to work on multiple skills simultaneously by alternating the topics. It helps you understand how concepts differ, overlap, or correlate, increasing your retention.

Here’s how interleaved practice is done:

  1. Identify and gather study materials: Choose the relevant textbooks, lecture notes, or study resources for the topics you want to study.
  2. Select a set of topics: Instead of studying one topic exclusively, choose a few topics that you want to work on simultaneously. These topics can be related or unrelated.
  3. Alternate between topics: Start studying the first topic in your selected set, focusing on key concepts and details. Once you feel you have grasped the main ideas, switch to the next topic in your set. Continue alternating between the topics, spending dedicated time on each one.
  4. Make connections: As you study different topics, try to identify connections and relationships between them. Look for similarities, differences, or overlapping concepts. This comparative analysis helps deepen your understanding and facilitates knowledge retention.
  5. Review and spaced repetition: After covering all the topics in your set, go back and review each one at regular intervals. Spaced repetition ensures that you revisit the material periodically, reinforcing your learning and increasing long-term retention.

By incorporating interleaved practice into your study routine, you can enhance your learning by challenging your brain to make connections between various topics. It promotes a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter while optimizing retention through spaced repetition.

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Fogg Behavior Model

Lastly, changing your mindset and behaviors gives the final touches on being a more efficient reader and better medical student.

In this case, BJ Fogg, a Stanford behavioral scientist, reduces behavioral change into three variables: motivation, ability, and trigger.

If you want to read your medical textbook using the tips above, you need a specific level of motivation and ability, accompanied by a trigger to implement it.

For instance, your motivation can be your goal of doing well in your exams or classes and taking good care of your patients. You can boost this through engaging practices like social accountability.

Then, you can expand your ability by writing notes, reading actively, or using other tools to make your reading session more efficient.

Ultimately, you can trigger the behavior by setting definite schedules, timers, and reminders. Still, it is best to ensure you do not burn these triggers out because that may cause them to lose effectiveness.

[Free Download] Want to have everything you need to be a top student on your medical journey? Get FREE access to our Med School Success Handbook to get 60+ tips including the best study, time management, mindset tips you need to be a top student. Download it here. 

Studying in a medical school is not a walk in the park because there is so much to focus on. You can get drowned by hundreds of pages and piled-up notes you have written for months to master your lessons.

Nonetheless, using your study materials will work better if you know how to read textbooks efficiently. It will take a few tips and strategies to achieve that, but correctly doing it will help you attain proficiency in your lessons.

Whenever you’re ready, there are 4 ways I can help you:

1. The Med School Handbook:  Join thousands of other students who have taken advantage of the hundreds of FREE tips & strategies I wish I were given on the first day of medical school to crush it with less stress. 

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3. Med Ignite Study ProgramGet personalized help to create the perfect study system for yourself so you can see better grades ASAP on your medical journey & see results like these. 

4. Learn the one study strategy that saved my grades in medical school here (viewed by more than a million students like you). 

If you think this article has assisted you today, you may check out our other informative posts for your medical journey:

Until the next one, my friend…

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