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How to Improve Your Working Memory for Greater Study Gains in Med School

Med school presents a lot of challenges when it comes to learning new information. More than ever, you’re expected to stuff all this information into your brain and somehow keep it all in there. The whole experience makes you feel like your head is too small to keep it all in (and my brothers used to make fun of me for having a big head). At some point, I felt like my memory was an hourglass; the more I studied, the more stuff would slip my mind.

After getting over the immense frustration that comes with not being able to know everything, I eventually started to look into ways to work on my memory to see if there was something wrong with me. Turns out, every Average Joe tends to forget things, especially when it comes to the devilish details. So: we are expected to learn so much and our brains are only so big (and blessed with only a finite number of neurons). What do we do? Well it turns out that we can improve on our working memory.

But how does short-term memory work?

Two guys named Baddeley and Hitch came up with a working memory model to explain how short-term memory works. Basically, it is comprised of 3 components:

1. An overarching central executive that regulates memory

2.The phonologic loop

3. The visuospatial sketchpad

It is not hard to imagine that memory works with verbal input and visual clues!

Aside from the obvious, how can we improve our memory?

The audiology loop gets you only so far. Listening to lectures or reading complex and foreign words out loud is a commonly overlooked simple way to improve memory. However, from my experience the most powerful part of memory is visual. You just can’t unsee certain things. I took advantage of this by color coordinating my highlighting on my notes and books to certain disease processes. If, for whatever reason, a disease reminded me of a certain color, I would highlight it that way. Adding colored pens to the mix only adds to the fun.

To memorize complex topics or high yield images, I would print it out and hang it up near my desk so I would constantly look at it. I even made a poster to categorize all the bugs into separate groups (color coordinated, of course). This helped immerse me in the material, and constantly remind me of the topic. Finally, I would highly encourage drawing certain disease processes in my notes/ book. You don’t need to be an artist; as long as it’s stick figure level, then you’re good. Just something quick and simple to add your own interpretation to the text.


Looking for more study tips? Learn how to study smarter, not harder, during medical coursework. Have a look at Dr. Jason Ryan’s Step 1 Study Tips and discover your learning style to to help maximize your study time.

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