Improving Memory Retention During Medical School

Medical student practicing how to improve memory retention

It’s challenging to estimate the number of facts you need to learn during the preclinical years. Is it millions? Billions, even? Trying to remember all the roots, trunks, divisions, cords, and branches of the brachial plexus in addition to every other nerve, muscle, bone, and ligament in the human body (and that’s just one subject!), can be overwhelming. It can feel like the number of facts exceeds the number of neurons (approximately 86 billion) you have available. So, how can you retain all that information? Here are a few suggestions on how to improve your memory retention during medical school.

1. Focus on In-Depth Understanding

Whenever possible, make an in-depth understanding of the concepts your goal rather than rote memorization. One good practice is to frequently ask yourself, “why?” as you’re learning new information (eg, why does cyanide poisoning cause “cherry-red” skin?*). Then find the answer. Ideally, you’ll perform this search at the moment your brain is engaged with the topic. However, if pressed for time, keeping a things-to-look-up-later list (and, of course, actually looking those things up) is better than forgetting your question altogether.

Distilling the information you learn into your own words can also facilitate a more profound understanding. You can take notes, draw flowcharts, or create flashcards, or you can explain complex concepts out loud to a study group, a partner, or (why not?) a houseplant. These techniques work because to paraphrase a topic effectively, you must understand it first; if along the way you get tripped up, you’ll know you need to make another pass through the information.

2. Maximize Active Learning 

The difference between active learning (eg, answering practice questions) and passive learning (eg, rereading textbooks or rewatching video lectures) is like the difference between being a driver and being a passenger. As the former, your eyes are on the road, and you remain alert, while as the latter, you’re leaning back, letting the rumble lull you to sleep. In both situations, active engagement not only helps you stay awake but also helps you retain more information, whether that information is a driving landmark or a significant medical fact. 

Study groups, where you and your fellow students quiz each other on critical facts and “teach” one another complex information (eg, the effects of different lung diseases on pulmonary flow-volume loops), are common examples of active learning.  This proven study technique promotes both active recall and integration of information. Question banks (QBanks) are another example. When you take a QBank practice test, you’re not only forcing yourself to recall important medical facts and concepts but are also stretching your mind to apply them to new scenarios. Over time, your active engagement will pay off in improved understanding and the ability to recall critical information when it counts (eg, during Step 1).

3. Strengthen Long-Term Retention with Spaced Repetition 

Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that boosts memory functioning by taking advantage of the spacing effect (ie, how “our brains learn more effectively when we space out our learning over time“). With spaced repetition, difficult information is presented more frequently until it is mastered, then the frequency is decreased, so the brain is challenged to retrieve the information. The harder the brain must work to retrieve the data, the more the connection is strengthened when the memory is accessed. Used most commonly for studying flashcards, spaced repetition is like “hacking your brain” to make it work smarter rather than harder. 

At UWorld, we have adopted this proven technique and made it accessible in the QBank interface. With the addition of our new Flashcards “Study” feature, you can now review any flashcards you’ve created with spaced repetition–automatically! As you go through our practice questions, you can use any of our written content, illustrations, or tables to create your flashcards. Then, with the “Study” feature, you can set the frequency with which your flashcards will reappear so that you can take advantage of spaced repetition.

By applying spaced repetition to your UWorld flashcards, you’ll learn more efficiently, create stronger long-term memory, and recall more information during your medical school and licensing exams.

We hope you’ve found this discussion of techniques to improve memory retention helpful. Visit our website to learn more about our USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK/Shelf Review learning platforms, including our new Flashcards “Study” feature.

*Answer: Cyanide binds to cytochrome oxidase and inhibits mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation, thereby impairing aerobic metabolism. Because oxygen utilization by the peripheral tissues is impaired, oxygen extraction from the blood is reduced, and the concentration of venous oxyhemoglobin (ie, the oxygenated form of hemoglobin, which is bright red in color) rises. Increased venous oxyhemoglobin can give a bright red appearance to venous blood and a flushed, “cherry-red” appearance to the skin.