Study Hacks for Medical School

Kolin M. Meehan


September 12, 2017

What would happen if an extra hour suddenly appeared on today's calendar? How about two? Most would welcome the additional time to complete errands, spend time with family, or pop in at the mall. Students invariably see "extra" time as more opportunity to study or work on projects. However, if a way to increase study efficiency existed, those additional hours could encompass more leisurely activities.

Readers of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow encounter a revolutionary declaration about the two minds that inhabit us all.[1] These systems—the eponymous "fast" and "slow"—provide a conceptual framework that distinguishes instantaneous subconscious thoughts from those that involve sustained, concerted effort. Understanding this mental duopoly exposes both the expansive potential and restraining pitfalls that beset even the most seasoned minds. Like a machine, the brain possesses the capacity for great feats and yet falls prey to the problem of scarcities in terms of time and energy.

How, then, can students of any stripe manage to fight against academic rigors and their own neural networks to absorb and consolidate information in time for a difficult test or an approaching deadline? Many freeze in panic or even distance themselves emotionally, only to follow up by prematurely rationalizing an "inevitable" failure to perform. Fortunately, mental stagnation is not a foregone conclusion but rather a temporary obstacle meant to be challenged and overcome.

Study Hack 1: The Quiet Battlefield

To quell the fear of defeat in battle, the infamous general Sun Tzu presciently urged warriors to know the enemy as well as they know themselves. Just as a general commands soldiers into war, so too must every student command an arsenal of text and code to make the grade.

The study session begins even before the books open. In fact, a successful student must first mold her environment to suit her needs. This requires selection of a quiet, secluded location to drown out interference through deafening silence. Start by physically turning off cellphones and placing them completely out of sight to avoid a surprisingly inevitable brain-drain. Researchers have found "that the mere presence of [students'] own smartphones impaired their performance on tasks that are sensitive to the availability of limited-capacity attentional resources... [even though they] did not interact with or receive notifications from their phones."[2]

This suggests an insidious effect forcing students to subconsciously suppress the urge to reach for their phone. Just as muscles fatigue under sustained loads, so too does the mind eventually succumb to the progressive drag of electronic devices. Better to avoid this scenario by wholly unplugging from the outside world to focus 100% on the task at hand.


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