Study Hacks for Medical School

Kolin M. Meehan


September 12, 2017

Study Hack 2: The Pomodoro Technique

Even an empty room still houses an invisible threat: procrastination. The bane of study efforts inevitably creeps in with each passing minute. Even when overt distractions disappear, the mind tends to wander off on anything marginally more interesting than the material laid out on the desk. Every minute of a dedicated study period not devoted to actual studying is a total waste of time.

Regain control of time and alleviate the anxiety married to that upcoming deadline by chunking the day into discrete packets of time. The Pomodoro technique—Italian for "tomato"—does just that. First coined by writer Francesco Cirillo who used a tomato-shaped timer, the method requires participants to set an alarm for 25 minutes and carry out the task at hand completely uninterrupted.[3] Once it sounds, break for 5 minutes to cool down the brain and prepare for the next interval. Rinse and repeat through four full pomodoros, and then take a longer break for about 30 minutes.

Study sessions structured in this manner enable students to accomplish a day's work without perceiving the level of fatigue normally felt during long, uninterrupted study cycles. The short breaks punctuating the day are sufficient to initiate the consolidation process and enable longer study periods.

Study Hack 3: Provide Space, Don't Cram

The Pomodoro technique is further enhanced by another level of global design. With the daily timing schedule set, now it's time to think more longitudinally over the weeks and months that encompass an entire semester. Herein lies an opportunity to take advantage of the brain's dependency on repetition for long-term memory storage: Study structures that incorporate spaced repetition vastly outperform single, large cramming sessions.

Students engaged with various material—from foreign languages to cartography to facial recognition studies—all benefited from controlled dispersion of information over a predefined time period.[4,5,6,7] The concept centers on the idea that consecutive exposure to information plays on primal tendencies to maximize the "need probability [of memories]" wherein "memories are considered in order of their [importance] until the need probability is so low that it no longer is worth considering any more."[8]

This makes sense in that the "retrievability of a memory is strongly related to the probability of that particular memory being needed...[and] repetition would surely be one clue indicating that a particular fact was important."[9] Therefore, the sure-fire way to convince the brain that a fact bears significance rests in repeatedly presenting that fact over a long stretch of time.

Study Hack 4: Test Thyself

One overarching caveat reigns supreme: Although spaced repetition aids in the mastery of basic knowledge acquisition, it merely plants the seeds, relying on the student to harvest a useable product. Disjointed facts necessarily require assembly through the perennial, tried-and-true practice of self-assessment.

Testing persists as a mandatory component of long-term understanding. In one experiment, researchers created four equally timed study-quiz (SxQx) conditions, as follows[5]:

  • S0Q0: Wherein participants studied a list of 40 Swahili-English word pairs for 5 seconds each and were quizzed on the entire list immediately after; and

  • S1Q, SQ1, and S1Q1: Wherein successfully recalled pairs were dropped from the study, quiz, or both conditions, respectively.

Subjects experienced four cycles of the assigned SxQx condition and returned a week later to take a test on the entire list. The study's authors found that testing conditions S0Q0 and S1Q outperformed the others by a factor of four. Thus, scenarios where successfully recalled pairs were dropped from the self-assessment quiz resulted in much worse outcomes. In fact, "repeated retrieval practice [ie, testing] enhanced long-term retention, whereas repeated studying produced essentially no benefit."[5] In effect, the brain must deliberately call forth acquired information or else students face a very real "use it or lose it" situation.


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