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Medical Coursework: How to Study Smarter, Not Harder

Medical school courses—and their associated quizzes—are notorious for how difficult they can be to study for. Professors present you with lectures full of tons of slides (in addition to tons of outside reading). Plus, this is the first time most of us are learning this information, and frankly, some of the concepts are really difficult.

But failing these courses really isn’t a road we want to go down. It means make-up tests and retaking courses which is even MORE time spent when we don’t have a lot of extra time to spend to begin with.

I can almost assure you that if I ask some of my professors how to do better they will more or less say, “Work harder.” Some would suggest doctors are supposed to work extremely hard, even in medical school.

I largely disagree with this. Becoming a good physician clearly involves hard work, but sometimes blind effort is not as successful as carefully planned work. Saving time to reach the same end result just seems like the best way to go.

So how can we attain the same end result (doing well in our medical school courses) with less work? 

Disclaimer: Because medical schools are so different in how they run their pre-clinical courses, I had to generalize (i.e. these are not specific for your school, but should work regardless).

1. Identify the source of test questions

The first thing I do in every course I take is identify the source of the professor’s test questions. Almost always this is the lecture slides. Yes, I know your professor assigned reading from a textbook. But I can tell you that my bookshelf has exactly zero textbooks for my pre-clinical courses. This works for histology too. If your professor puts histology slides on his or her lectures, know how to recognize those exact slides.

2. Understand what you have identified

Okay. Now you know that the exam consists of information exclusively from the slides. The next step is to sit down and really understand the concepts on the slide. Things that can help include: listening to the professors lecture that accompanies the slide, and working with a friend or tutor.

3. Learn what you now understand

Understanding concepts is an important part of learning medicine. However, knowing facts is an equally important part to becoming a strong physician. After I understand the concepts described in a lecture, I will start memorizing lecture slides. This doesn’t mean reading the slides, but actually trying to recall from memory the important facts in a slide. This is hard. Really hard. But it does a much better job imprinting the information into your head so that on test day you can quickly recall the info rather than struggle to find something “I think I read…”. 

4. Make the most out of every minute

Sitting in the back of lecture on Instagram is not making the most of every minute (at least in terms of preparing for your exam). If that’s what you do during lecture, don’t go to lecture. If you spend 4 hours in lecture a day and “don’t get anything out of lecture” why not sit in the library for 4 hours studying instead? Why not watch a lecture, speeding up/pausing as needed to truly understand what the professor is saying at a pace that suits you? But this is not only about lecture. When you study and have lost all your efficiency (staring at the same slide for minutes on end)—stop. Do something else and come back. This leads me to my final point:

5. Know when to stop

You can study forever for coursework exams. You can study hours on end and still not get every question correct. While I always believe in putting in the hard work for courses, I like to remind my students to keep in mind that once you have a strong grasp of the material, and you feel comfortable with the information you need to know, you can actually stop studying. You don’t have to study until the minute before the exam. Remember this is not your first test and it most certainly will not be your last.