6 Study Techniques Every Clinical Student Should Know

Shiv M. Gaglani; M. Ryan Haynes, PhD


October 02, 2018

With the start of the new school year, 25,000 incoming medical students in the United States—and hundreds of thousands of students around the world—are wondering how best to study so they can succeed in classes, on board exams, and in the clinic. Fortunately, decades worth of neuroscience research has given us an entire toolkit of techniques, many of which you probably have not heard of before.

Both of us have devoted much of our careers before and during medical school to assimilating and testing these cognitive techniques; the result of these efforts is our learning platform, Osmosis. Here we will highlight six of the most effective, neuroscience-backed study techniques that we've incorporated into Osmosis that every clinical student should know and how you can apply them.

Technique 1: Test-Enhanced Learning

Having taken dozens of high-stakes summative tests, ranging from class finals to the MCAT, SAT, and ACT, you've probably come to associate tests with the end of a learning experience rather than as part of it. Fortunately, over the past decade, researchers have been chipping away at this dogma; now, educators are beginning to view low-stakes formative tests as integral parts of the learning process. Testing has been shown to more effectively improve knowledge retention compared with less active forms of studying, such as rereading information or rewatching lectures. Thus, it is important to find opportunities to quiz yourself with flashcards and questions, ideally on a daily or weekly basis, to ensure that you're truly internalizing the material.

In a New York Times commentary titled "How Tests Make Us Smarter," Professor Henry L. Roediger of the Washington University in St Louis further describes how active retrieval of information through testing strengthens the underlying knowledge. Equally important, however, is when you take these tests, which brings us to the next technique.

Technique 2: Spaced Repetition

First described in the 1880s by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, spaced repetition is hardly a novel technique. However, it's only now becoming widely adopted by students and teachers. The key concept is that spacing your studying and self-testing over time as opposed to massing, also known as "cramming," will flatten your forgetting curve and help you retain information longer.

The reason cramming persists as a popular behavior is that it is often more effective in the short term. Pulling an all-nighter can certainly help you pass tomorrow's exam, but 1 month later, you will have forgotten much of that information. Given that learning medicine is more akin to an ultramarathon as opposed to a sprint, it would behoove you to space out your study sessions. There are many tools that can schedule these sessions for you, including Anki and Osmosis.

It's important to note that spaced repetition does not just help with knowledge retention—it also helps with skill development, as this study on learning surgical procedures demonstrated.

All this being said, recognizing potential issues with spaced repetition is also important. Given how dynamic medicine is (eg, guideline changes, pharmaceutical discoveries), you actually do not want to remember what you learn in school forever. That’s why you should use a spaced repetition system that updates you on these changes (something we’ve pioneered at Osmosis).


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