How Can I Learn Everything I'm Expected to Know?

Daniel J. Egan, MD


September 09, 2010


I am feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information presented in my preclinical classes. Do you have any good study suggestions?

Response from Daniel J. Egan, MD
Associate Residency Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, NY

For most of you, it was relatively easy to sail through college. Good grades came easily, and mastering the subject material in your classes seemed completely realistic. Although it was almost 13 years ago, I remember vividly the first month of medical school when the study methods I had used in college did not seem to work any longer. I barely passed my first test in embryology. The amount of material we had to learn seemed insurmountable. Not only was I expected to know what was in the lectures but also the material in the texts, which I would have to teach myself. I was not quite sure there were enough hours in the day to learn it all.

Early in my medical school education, the dean for preclinical years made an announcement that we should all prepare ourselves for this inevitable fact: No matter how hard we tried, we would never be able to learn everything we were expected to know. It was difficult to process her statement, but as time went on, I began to realize that she was correct. Several all-nighters later, I realized that my friends who went to bed at a reasonable time were doing just as well as me on exams. Either I was doing something wrong or there really was a fixed amount of information a person could process at one time.

So what is the best way to study? Obviously, every adult has learning styles that work best for him or her. Some people work better alone; some people study better in groups. Some prefer the quiet of a library while others welcome the intermittent distractions of a Starbucks. Still some students benefit from a combination of all of these methods to help break up the monotony of hours of studying.

Regardless of the study style you adopted before medical school, I would encourage you to consider alternatives. Undergraduate education is not the same as medical education. I never used group studying in college, but I began to study with friends in medical school and learned a lot from my peers. In return I taught them things that I understood better. The process of talking through concepts and pathophysiology definitely helped me more than reading alone.

Study guides were new to me and useful because they pulled out key concepts that may not have been apparent from readings and lectures. Moreover, someone else had done the job of summarizing topics for me. Frequently, these areas were emphasized on exams. Let's face it, at the end of the day, we are all interested in passing tests and doing well on the boards. So in addition to increasing your overall medical knowledge, you must also be successful in taking tests.

Reviewing old exams can help you synthesize information and give you a sense of a course director's style in test writing. I encourage you to take as many practice tests as possible. Most people will tell you that this is a great way to review, and it forces you to go back and relearn areas of weakness. Getting a test question wrong is helpful. We have all heard that people learn from mistakes, and this is certainly true when answering practice questions. The exams also help give you a sense of how well you know a topic, especially if you are juggling several courses simultaneously.

The juggling part brings up another point. Time management is essential, and it's important to have a schedule, even if it's just a general guide that helps you stay on target. Food, exercise, and breaks are needed to maintain your own sanity. While some activities may need to be sacrificed over the weekend before a Monday exam, keeping in touch with the rest of the world and taking some time off may help reset your enthusiasm for studying.

So, be realistic. Understand your limits. Don't forget to sleep. And use your friends as resources!