Bianca is a medical intern at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in the Philippines. She is a BS Psychology graduate, currently working on her double degrees in MD and MBA.
Why is Studying Medicine so Hard?
You’ve probably heard that med students study for hours and hours with no breaks. That is partly true. One study found that medical students experience more distress due to their heavy workload compared with other students. In another study, spanning several years, by the time the students had become residents, 60% of them met the criteria for burnout. The human body is complicated, and everything that can go wrong with it is even more complicated. Because med students have so much to study in a very limited time, studying can be exhausting.
But there are efficient ways to study without burning out. You just have to find a style that works for you. But first, let’s get to the bottom of why it might be hard for you.
Why Can’t I Remember Anything I Study?
We’ve all been there: We’re sitting in front of the exam paper and suddenly we can’t recall the answer to a question even though we studied it the night before. It can be frustrating, and most of the time, we don’t know what we did wrong.
Actually, there are many mistakes students make (especially in medical school). Note that many of these “mistakes” may work for others. Some of you may be thinking, “I’m a great crammer and it works for me.” However, if you are having trouble studying, it might be best to change your tactics:
Burning the midnight oil
This is when you sit yourself down for a long night of studying and take hardly any breaks. You won’t learn much from cramming like this, because you’re not giving your brain time and space to process and store information.
Highlighting your book
Just because you highlight something doesn’t mean you’ll remember it. Passively rereading information, even with a highlighter, is not really effective. Without active reading, highlighting won’t help information stick.
Your books or notes are open, you have loud music in the background, several tabs are open on your laptop, and your phone is opened to your favorite social media app. You think you’re multitasking, but you’re actually distracting yourself. When you switch quickly between activities, you’re not giving your brain time to adjust in between, and it negatively affects your memory.
Maybe you procrastinated and then realized that you still have a lot of work to do, or maybe your 30-minute nap turned into 4 hours of sleep, so now you are studying in a mad panic. Sometimes the panic even sets in during the exam. Anxiety can actually block your memory, concentration, and other brain resources needed for studying and recall.
How to Study Well for Exams
There are many ways to study that work for different people. In medical school, you will find a good mix of different kinds of study methods that students use. But the only way to know if a particular method works for you is to try it out! Here are a few tips and tricks that will hopefully help you along the way:
- Review regularly: You need repetition and practice to absorb information over time. It’s hard to keep reviewing the same things you learned while learning new things every day, but with a bit of discipline and determination, it’ll become routine over time.
- Study in an environment you enjoy: Pick a nice chair or study on the floor! As long as you’re comfortable and ready to learn, studying will be a lot easier. Do not study in the same place you sleep! You might close your eyes for a moment, only to find it’s morning again.
- Test yourself: Studying is part of the battle. Testmanship is another. You need to get used to thinking around questions to train yourself for exams. It’s also really helpful to see which subjects you have difficulty in.
- Take breaks: Self-care is one of the most important things in med school. It’s easy to burn out, and if you’re not careful, it’ll reflect in your work and studies. Know when you need to rest, and give yourself time to do the things you like.
Fun Ways to Study in Med School
Now we can talk about ways to spice up your study sessions. Yes, some subjects in medicine can be boring. But studies have shown that students learn more and are less stressed when they try to add an element of fun to their learning. Here are a few activities you can try to turn your study sessions into more stimulating ones:
Use mnemonics and share with your friends
Mnemonics are easier to remember when they’re funny. They’re even funnier and stick better when you use mnemonics with your friends’ names or an inside joke. Giving your associations a hint of emotion helps you recall things better.
Wake yourself up with something other than coffee
I’ve found that when I get sleepy, it’s not because I’m tired. It’s usually because I don’t feel stimulated. So, when you take a break, do something you like. Walk around, watch fun videos, eat something, or even dance!
Get help from your friends and family
Studying medicine is not only theoretical. A lot of it is practical, too. Practice physical exams and special maneuvers on your family, your friends, or even your pet! Using your hands and other senses will help you recall a lot better.
Use a study app
There are tons of study apps out there, and many of them cater to medicine with videos, flashcards, and even simulations! From an overwhelming wall of words in your book, using a new platform can be stimulating. You can also use time management apps to help balance your studying and leisure time.
Study with friends
You don’t have to study alone. Go out to a library or café, or go online with friends and study together. The change in environment, plus seeing your peers working hard, can motivate you to work harder. I’ve found even having studying/working sessions with my friends who aren’t studying medicine helpful because I get to talk about what I’m learning with them.
There are many ways that may or may not work for you as you go through your journey. Some people study with music; some prefer complete silence. Some prefer studying weeks before an exam; some study hours before.
Just continue trying different kinds of study styles until you finally get it right.
You might even change your style from time to time. It’s all about practice and discipline, but it’s also about the fun of it. Cherish your time in med school, and you’ll be graduating before you know it!