How to Study for Step 1 Without Cramming

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • We asked Ben Williams, the founder of Firecracker, about how to create a study plan that has the perfect dynamic for learning.

    Common Study Plan Misconceptions

    We asked Ben Williams, the founder of Firecracker, about common misconceptions medical students have regarding Step 1. “Given the importance of Step 1,” he said, “and the amount of material that is covered on Step 1, it isn’t wise to cram for this test. One misconception is the idea that studying for Step 1 should be strenuous and difficult in order to be productive. This is only partially true, and I don’t think this idea is usually understood in the right way.” Ben emphasized that some pressure can be beneficial and conducive to learning, whereas no pressure or too much pressure can hamper learning and productivity.

    “When you go to the gym,” said Ben, “an efficient workout might include only 20-minute intervals of pushing yourself really hard. This CrossFit model, which emphasizes interval training, applies to learning as well. The same idea at work in the CrossFit model can be applied to Step studying.”

    “You should be challenging yourself when you sit down to study. Make sure you’ll be able to retrieve the information you studied. Make it effortful to integrate what you know with other material. Make sure you’re properly filing away information, in order to be able to retrieve it successfully. Don’t forget to take frequent breaks.”

    The CrossFit model can be applied to Step studying.

    Ben says that the secrets to optimal learning are interval training techniques. It is essential to take breaks and to listen to your body. After a long day of studying, your body needs rest and sleep to assimilate all the information you’ve learned. During sleep, new information will be synthesized and properly stored for retrieval. When you get up the next morning, information you struggled with the night before will be crystal clear, and you’ll be prepared for another whole day of powering through your studies.

    Challenging Yourself Without Cramming

    “Learning should involve the right level of challenges. When we write questions for the Firecracker question bank, we want to ensure that we are pushing our students out of their comfort level, and that their learning experience is optimal.” Ben explained that Firecracker’s goal is to ensure that questions “fall within the zone of proximal development.” “You don’t want the question to look like hieroglyphics,” said Ben, “but you also don’t want the question to be so simple that it feels as if you are just checking off a box and moving on to another question.” The zone of proximal development refers to what is called “scaffolded learning.” Firecracker scaffolds your learning by supplying you with questions that match the challenge level that you are ready for, and pushing you forward bit by bit.

    When studying for Step 1, use resources that allow you to challenge yourself without overwhelming yourself. In addition, using the interval training method that Ben describes can also help you succeed during your Step 1 study period without resorting to cramming.