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How Top Scorers Retain Knowledge from USMLE World


You probably already know how important USMLE World is. But this still leaves us with the lofty task of trying to garner oodles of information from this valuable learning tool in an organized fashion.

This is far easier said than done, particularly because the lack of a copy-and-paste function when the USMLE World application is open makes it difficult to be efficient in drawing from this material to build your study armory. Most students approach this problem by annotating their hard copy of the latest edition of First Aid for the USMLE Step 1. We strongly recommend doing this, particularly for those of you who are just beginning the process.

According to a scientific article to which the New York Times recently made reference, the act of writing down information is integral in the learning process because it activates different neurocircuitry, particularly compared to the act of typing. For many of you, this is a truism with which you have personal experience – many of us learn far better when taking handwritten notes because auditory or visual cues are simply not sufficient to reinforce incoming information. This is part of why selectively annotating First Aid with facts from USMLE World is so fantastic!

However, there are two pitfalls to this approach that I’ve come across several times when working with students:

1. How much annotation is adequate?

Many students have trouble knowing when to stop. They spend hours reviewing question blocks because the question bank is so jam-packed with seemingly high-quality information, triggering yet another version of FOMO (fear of missing out).

We’ve all been there. If you’re spending more than three hours reviewing a block of 46 questions, chances are that your approach is inefficient and could use a nice trim. While every student learns differently, the truth is that there is such a thing as spending too much time on this aspect of USMLE Step 1 prep. The more you’re writing into your First Aid, the harder it will ultimately be to review everything. After all, the beauty of First Aid is that it is a streamlined version of core content, with limited complete sentences and an abundance of blank space on each page, a layout that makes its content far more digestible. If you’re clogging it up with complete sentences from the question bank, you’re sort of defeating its purpose, no?

Plus, unless you’re a total whiz, you’re going to need to see that information again! Which brings me to the next pitfall

2. How can you be sure that you’ll see these newly learned facts again?

This is where the AnkiWeb flashcard program can be a helpful tool, particularly for those with limited time. My advice is to create a separate deck of flashcards for particularly high-yield topics that you’re learning from USMLE World.

How do you know if something is high yield? Well, for starters, check out the percentage of students answering those questions correctly. You want to be sure that you have memorized all of the “low hanging fruit,” which means converting questions you answered incorrectly, but which other students did not, into terse, easy-to-review flashcards. The benefit of doing this electronically was covered in a post last month. Using AnkiWeb to build an active learning tool from important USMLE World facts is faster than annotating or making handwritten flashcards, plus it breaks none of the copyright violations that we’ve all come to know and hate when working with the USMLE World question bank.

Isn’t that a relief?!

Should you convert every question into a notecard?

Absolutely not.

I’d recommend selectively annotating in First Aid in the majority of cases, and building an AnkiWeb deck only for the topics that are either (1) super high-yield (as described above), or (2) you’ve noticed constitute a particularly weak area for you.

As for the material that you’ve annotated, if you’re following our recommended approach, you’ll probably end up making flashcards for that too. Frankly, this is one of the only ways to be sure that you’ll see the information again, as reviewing and re-reviewing your annotated version of First Aid is quite passive, even, dare I say, a little dull. And the least we can do is try to make this (a little) fun for ourselves, am I right?

Making flashcards from the question bank is one way to do just that. Go ahead, try it!

Want to know the five BIGGEST mistakes students make with USMLE World?