Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How To Study in Medical School

This main purpose of this post is to remind myself of healthy study habits. If you are a college student, premed or a med student, who needs to perform at a high standard, I'd say this post would also be of great help. 

Now, I know not all medical schools are the same. Each school has a different system and I go to a school in Korea so not everything I say here is 100% relevant to all students. However, education is universal and so is learning. I hope many points I discuss below will resonate with you. 

So here are 10 strategies that will help you do well in school: 

1. Be quick to adapt and tweak your study method accordingly. Classes you take are not identical. Furthermore, professors differ vastly in the way they lecture and what they expect from you. This means that if you are stubborn with only one way of studying, you can end up wasting a lot of time. There are many different types of tools you can use for studying. You could use the internet, past exams, USMLE study books, text books, lecture notes, and so forth. However, each tool is effective only if it is used appropriately.

Here's the analogy. When you eat an apple you use the knife to peal off the skin. You don't use your hands as if you are pealing off a tangerine. Nor do you use a nutcracker as if you are trying to crack open the shell of a walnut. Each tool is optimal in specific circumstances.

Likewise, it is important to analyze the situation quickly and decide how you will approach each class, and what is required of you. For example, there are some professors who are just horrible at lecturing. 80% of what they are saying in classes either don't make sense or are just simply boring. In this case, focusing and sitting hours in class does more harm than good as it drains out all your energy and discourages you to study any further. If you can quickly analyze the situation, you may be wise enough to bring a text book next time and read along the topics the professor is explaining. After all, the textbook does a better job at explaining concepts than the professor. This way you could actually learn during class and not stress too much about not being able to understand the professor's jumbled speech. 

Adaptation is difficult for anyone, and it requires a little bit of courage, humility, openness, determination, creativity, and critical thinking. 

This connects to the next point, in which will be helpful in analyzing the situation.

2. Ask your seniors about the classes and professors. Getting tips from people who have already gone through the course is extremely wise. Seniors will suggest what study material is useful, how the professor is like in class, what the professor tests you on, and what topics are a must-know. Be specific with your questions and don't be shy. Usually, seniors appreciate students asking for advice and they will try their best to help you as much as they can. 

3. Revise after class. For medical students this is probably too obvious that it is not worth mentioning. Nevertheless, as much as it is a basic habit it is incredibly important to revise after each class and make sure you don't fall behind! When it comes to exam period, trying to organize and learn all the material takes a lot of time. Leaving everything last minute means risking your GPA. 

Revision usually takes at least 5-6 hours each day for me and it is not an easy task for sure (and by the way our classes are roughly from 9am-6pm...). Here is my standard for revising. You need to be able to: 1) Review 5 years worth of past exam questions so that you can identify what concepts are important and are likely to reappear on this year's exam (Our professors reuse roughly 70% of past exam questions so it's quite significant for us) 2) Organize/mark the key points covered that day so that it is convenient to study during exam period 3) Try to actually learn and memorize couple of the concepts by rereading and testing yourself (this way you will have less work to do in the future) 4) If you are struggling, read workbooks (that have good summaries and practice questions) to help you understand the material.

Ultimately, during the exam period you want to be able to conveniently solve past exam questions with prior preparation done through daily revision mentioned above. 

4. Use your time wisely. Even if we want to study long hours, circumstances do not allow us to do so. Hence, studying with intensity and efficiency to nail down concepts is what is required of us. In medical school you will never be 100% ready for an exam. You are always nervous that you might forget the material you just studied, and there is always more to read. 

If you agree with me that time is a luxury, then it should be obvious that you need to make strategies to increase the amount of time allotted for studying. Cutting down on your extracurricular activities and socializing with friends could be a solution for example. The time saved by cutting down on trivial activities could also be used for sleeping or running. This way, you can improve your health, stamina and performance, which will help you in the long run. 

Never take time for granted and make sure you are allocating enough time for your studies. If not, then you need to recheck your schedule and make changes accordingly. Fast.

5. Prepare for classes. Revision will take the majority of your time, so you'll be asking, "do I even have time to prepare for tomorrow's class?" Well, hopefully number 4 "Use your time wisely" gives a solution to that problem. 

What I do is, I try to skim through past exam questions first, then skim through the PowerPoint slides the professor sends us in advance. By doing this, you can know which slides are the important ones and when to pay attention to the professor. This method will come in very handy when taking notes. If I want to be perfectly prepared for the class, I would also take a look at review/workbooks that have a good summary of the topic we will be learning. I reemphasize how review/workbooks are simple but excellent tools when trying to understand difficult concepts.

6. Make small goals. Now it is difficult to carry out all the tasks mentioned above. In fact, all of this burden can be overwhelming and difficult to complete. Therefore, you want to make yourself small objectives that you promise yourself to accomplish even if you are tired or having a bad day. Make them realistic.

For me, this would be:

  • Looking through 3 years worth of past exams (rereading it until I understand the answers to the problems. If I'm struggling, I'll use other resources to help me). Usually, exam questions from the most recent year is the most relevant and important, so nail that down first.
  • Allotting 1.5 hours before sleep to prepare for next day's class
  • Doing 20 push ups and 40 squats each day (for my health).
These minimal requirements will keep you disciplined and motivated to get work done each day. 

6. Be strict with how much you sleep. Sometimes laziness and too much sleep is a serious obstacle to get your work done. I believe that you need good steady sleep to perform well every day. However, if you are taking long naps after class, and if this is stealing away your study hours and preventing you to sleep promptly at night, maybe avoiding naps altogether is a solution.

Right after class, the best way to avoid long naps is by resisting to go to your room. Drink a cup of coffee and head straight to the library. Force yourself to study and remind yourself of the goals. Recall what and when you are planning to finish. If you are disciplined to carry out just this, I am pretty sure you will be using your time in a compact and efficient manner.

I think this is better than taking long naps, because long naps tend to make you loosen up and it takes time to get into study mode. Of course naps are refreshing but if it is not helping you to use your time in a compact manner, or if you are not getting your work done according to your schedule, maybe you need to push yourself a little harder.

On a side note, if sleep is absolutely necessary, I think sleeping on the desk is acceptable. Since this can be uncomfortable, it would be easier to wake up and go back to studying.

7. Know how to manage your stress. Like everyone else, you are not only burdened with an overwhelming amount of work, but you are also exposed to unexpected events, slumps and slips. You need to know how to resolve these problems and uplift your mental state accordingly. Here are couple ways you can manage your stress and reenter into a right frame of mind:
  • As a Christian, praying and meditating helps me calm down and give me inner peace. I get encouraged and re-ensured when I am reminded that God is in control, and I just need to trust Him.
  • A change of environment can be refreshing. When people are stressed they tend to stay in their room and spend hours sleeping and surfing online. This could be effective, but you need to careful that it doesn't become a vicious cycle. Rather than staying depressed in your room, you can go study at a cafe, a library or stick around with your friends. This way you can get some positive energy from the environment and liberate yourself from being caged. 
  • Run or do sports! Great for releasing stress, lowering your blood pressure, and keeping in shape. 
  • Listen to music. Create a new playlist so that your choice of music is fresh and exciting. 
  • Talk to someone. Sharing with others what is troubling you can free you from headache and provide solutions to your problems.
  • Sleep. It resets your mood. However, try to avoid this during weekdays when you need to keep up with work! Long naps can be dangerous so if you are planning to sleep, make sure you wake up promptly!
  • Eat good food. It can make you happy, temporarily.
  • Buy yourself a gift. Of course this applies when you have the budget to do so. I used to do this during college, but it isn't the best way to manage stress to be honest.
  • You could play games, but make sure you know how much is enough. If 1 hour is enough for releasing stress, then keep it within 1 hour.

8. Know how to motivate yourself.

Sometimes studying is boring. Actually, I take that back. Most of the time, studying is very depressing and challenging. Without a strong will to persevere dark hours, you are not going to last a long time. You need conviction. You need to have utmost confidence that you can fully complete the task and achieve an exceptional score. Without it, you are basically banging your head against a wall. Preparing for an exam is a marathon that requires consistency, so you are required to have motivation every day. Yes, every day.

Couple ways you can motivate yourself are:
  • Remind yourself of your ambitions, goals, and ask yourself why you have chosen this path. For me, praying helps me do this.
  • Think how the study material will be applicable to your profession in the future. If you are preparing to become a doctor, think how a lack of knowledge could actually kill a patient. This is the reason why I think clinicals are crucial as it help us associate our academic learning to real practice. They are real motivation boosters. It's a pity how clinicals come in 5th year of med school in Korea. (Watching documentaries related to your profession for example could help you visualize yourself in the future)
  • Think of the hardships you have overcome in the past, and how you can repeat this feat again. This will help build your confidence.
  • Think positively. There are so many ways you can do this. You can think of ways to reward yourself (such as food, gifts, meeting friends, travel, etc.) when you finish a task. You can also think of things you are thankful for. Looking through your photo album recalls good memories, which can also give you positive thoughts. 
  • Remind yourself that if you don't do work right now, you may regret it by the time your grades are up at the end of the semester. As someone who has failed classes in med school, the thought of failing again makes me work harder and wake up from my frequent laziness. 

9. Repetition is better than precision. If you are someone who can recall all the material you read just once, then good for you, ignore this point. However, if you do not possess this superpower, do not despair. Numerous research has shown that repetition is an incredibly efficient way of remembering and understanding study material.

When you read Power Point lecture slides (the professor provides) for the first time, it can be quite difficult. The trick is, you shouldn't expect to understand every single slide, A to Z. Skim through it once, skipping parts that seem to drain too much time. Read it the second time. The third time you read it, because you see the bigger picture, the parts that did not make sense at first will start to get a little more familiar and easier to understand. Work on the basics first, then come back to the nitty-gritty. Understand the bigger picture, then work on the details.

Then repeat reading the slides again and again until you perfectly know it.

10. Be active, creative, and try to enjoy what you are learning. This overlaps with number 1 "Be quick to adapt and tweak your methods accordingly." Learning can be tiring and repetitious. The material may be boring or difficult to grasp. In such frustrating situations you may have no drive to study.

If you are stuck and frustrated with the study material, change your approach. Instead of reading sections in order, skip parts that are less interesting and start reading sections that seem easier and more enjoyable. As mentioned above, you can read workbooks, you can watch lecture or documentary videos through Youtube or create a study group that can help you learn in an engaging way. You could even try lecturing fellow students who need help, and this could help you revise what you know.

You could also change your study environment. You could go to a cafe or out of campus where you can get refreshed. You could even volunteer at a hospital and try to get motivation from seeing patients.

Think of different methods that might help boost your concentration. Maybe you focus better when your room is clean. Some people focus better when they chew gum, listen to music, or have the TV turned on. I don't know, get creative.

I firmly believe that you cannot be really good at what you do unless you are focused and enjoy what you do. If you learn to enjoy, effort automatically follows and it will become a powerful driving force that encourages you to keep on going.

So there it is! 10 ways to get better grades in school.

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