MedicalUSMLE

Must-Have Study Techniques for Success

Student practicing must-have study techniques for success

Written by Tan JiaWei

Before I dive into my must-have study techniques for success, below are two of my favorite quotes on time:

  1. “Time is really the only capital that any human being has, and the only thing he can’t afford to lose.”  -Thomas Edison 
  2. “Ordinary people think merely of spending time; great people think of using it.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

I have tried out different study techniques for success over the years in medical school. These include using a planner and setting a list of to-dos that fits into specific time slots throughout the day. Also, I found it hard to accurately figure out how much time I need to dedicate for each to-do. I was alternating between having “too much time” and “too little time” from overestimating and underestimating what I could accomplish in the given period.

Besides, it can be counterproductive when you want to dive deeper into a particular topic, but you did not allocate enough time for it. Oftentimes, you will skip it just to keep up with your schedule. I always felt the sense of constantly having to keep up with time. Before long, I experienced burnout and realized that I need a change. I eventually got around it and found out what works best for me to this day. Now I am eager to share my personal best practices with you.

1. Set Your Own Pace

Put on your watch and just stop everything you are doing right now for five minutes. Watch the seconds go by. Internalize that rhythm of a ticking clock. It can feel like it takes a long time before the time is up. Yes, five minutes is a lot when you are undistracted. You have that potential to fill it up with productive deeds by being “present” in the moment. Now, go on to studying, flip the pages as you read through the materials, and see how much you can study in five minutes. The amount of learning you reap will be your “control.” Next, try to sit down and study for half an hour, maybe reading one new chapter. Notice the difference in how much you learn from the first and the last five minutes of those 30 minutes. 

Do you tend to learn more in the first than the last five minutes? Does this difference widen when you stretch out your study period into two hours? How long can you study before you feel that you are “saturated” and not making full use of your time anymore? This practice is essential as you will get good at setting your own “biological” clock for studying. You will know your baseline (how much you can typically learn), which is helpful in monitoring dips in productivity. You will also know your limit, and give yourself a little push to stay close to it for maximum study output. With repeated practice, you will be aware of your “state” of productiveness and spend your time wisely on focused learning. 

2. Time Dimension Is Context-Dependent 

As you practice Step 1, you will also realize that the output of five minutes from reading “Introduction” and “Pathophysiology” has a considerable gap. The former will leave you motivated and energized because it is relatively easy learning material. However, understanding intricate, complicated disease mechanisms will take up a lot of your brainpower. You will be fuel packed with essential information, even for a time of as short as five minutes. 

If you were to avoid burnout or fatigue, especially while doing long hours of revision, keep in mind that the dimension of time varies according to context. Because of the density of five minutes on “hard” topics, you might want to alter the “latitude” by prolonging your time spent on each learning point. Consciously go back to the previous learning points before moving on to the next to further consolidate your understanding and allow your mental faculty some “relaxation phase” to stay agile.

For example, after reading through the pathophysiology of multiple sclerosis (MS) and its treatment, re-read it when at the halfway point. Then come back to the next learning point of treatment. That way, you will have already gone through pathophysiology twice or three times when you are done reading the treatment. With a full understanding of the fundamental of what went wrong in MS, you will know what treatments are suitable without depending on memorization.   

3. Compartmentalize Your Time

Time is the f(x) of learning. How much you put into learning does not compare to how much you learn in a given time. To avoid fatigue and to keep your study motivation, micromanage your time into various slots for different types of learning. For example, by moving to read Neurology after Nephrology, which is an intrinsically, and some would argue a radically different topic. You are much more likely to stay focused on both subjects because they can stimulate your brain in different ways.

This study technique for success leads to better retention than being overwhelmed by corticospinal and spinothalamic pathways. If you have to read the same topic for hours, try to alter the learning mode or materials. For instance, change to lecture videos after textbooks or journal articles after PowerPoint slides. Each change will be like a breather for your brain and renew your state of interest so that you are always eager to learn more. 

On a meso level, compartmentalize your day into hours. Be aware of the times when you are less productive. For example, after lunch, and utilize that as “downtime” by spending it on something recreational that does not demand much of mental capacity. You kill two birds with one stone this way by getting enough rest and feeling energized for the next study session. Also, make good use of endogenous endorphins by slotting in half to an hour of exercise after studying. If you are less of an athletic type, napping can be an alternative, as research has shown that sleep consolidates memories. The bottom line is, personalize your study hours with close attention to your physical and psychological needs. Be flexible and take breaks in between. You will last longer and have more fun along the way than holing up in a library corner. 

On a macro level, compartmentalize your weeks by putting study breaks during weekends. Make your own rituals. I usually clear my desk on Friday night and have some desserts for “mini” celebrations. On the weekends, I make plans with family. These tiny celebrations in life keep you going, which is critical to sustaining you. You do not want to lose this momentum in a marathon like Medicine. I hope you have enjoyed and will apply these study techniques for success in medical school and residency.


About Tan JiaWei

Tan JiaWei, known simply as Jia, is an international student who earned exceptional USMLE Step 1, 2, 3 scores. Her hard work and dedication have helped her match into one of her dream schools. She recently matched into Yale University Bridgeport Hospital’s residency program.

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