The Power of Learning How You Learn: Tips I Wish I Knew Before Medical School
As a first-year medical student, eager to start your journey as a future physician, you are
filled with a range of emotions: fear, excitement, nervousness, happiness. I can recall distinctly
just how anxiety provoking the unknowns of medical school were. I did not know what to expect,
nor what I could do to prepare prior to starting the first year of medical school.
As a second-year medical student, I am often asked what I wish I was told prior to starting medical school and I have finally reached an answer: I wish someone had taught me to learn how I learn.
This may seem confusing, and you might think: “you got into medical school, you know
how to study”. I would argue that this is not necessarily true, however. I never learned what
worked best for me in terms of studying habits, and I would constantly alter my study resources
and techniques. When interviewing my classmates, it was unanimously agreed that learning
how to study would have made the first year of medical school orders of magnitude easier for
them. For those who figured this out in your undergraduate studies, I applaud you; this a truly
amazing thing to achieve early on. Sadly, I was not one of those fortunate enough to have
gained this knowledge early on. As an undergraduate student, I would study for an exam and
seemed to consistently forget the information once the course moved on to new material, or
when starting a new course. Pulling “all-nighters” in an effort to “squeeze in the last bit of
material” was a monthly, if not weekly occurrence for me throughout my undergraduate years.
During the start of the COVID19 pandemic, I found myself with time to study about what “true
learning” is. This was during a transitional period between obtaining my Master’s degree and
beginning medical school, and I believe this one of the best things I ever invested my time and
Here are a just few things I learned in this journey:
1. The Importance of Wellness.
Being mentally well is vital to success in any endeavor, but especially academic success. Taking breaks allows your brain to transition from active learning to diffuse learning. This helps create the connections which will allow you to recall the material easier.
Efficiency is not achieved by reading over the material for hours of unbroken periods of time or making your notes look aesthetically pleasing enough to be published in a book. Being efficient in medical school means finding what works and being consistent with it. This may look different for every block and every subject, but after working to find what works- usually during the first two weeks (I call this the “adjusting period”), you will better understand how to make the most of your time for maximum efficiency.
3. Spaced repetition is key.
Many medical students, myself included, use Anki, but any form of spaced repetition is important.
***Spaced repetition is a method of learning that involves repeatedly recalling information typically in the form of flashcards. Often newly introduced or more difficult flashcards will be used more frequently than those that are older or less difficult, thus spacing out how frequently the material is recalled.
“Chunking” is an important study strategy that can make learning large amounts of information more manageable. This is a strategy where one categorizes new information into groups or “chunks”, in order to process the information more easily. You can always add more information to these groups, but having a
framework will help you to build on the knowledge later.
5. It is never too early to do practice questions.
We tend to think we should wait until we “know the material enough” to answer questions, but practice questions have often been a “study guide”, guiding me to learn more on a certain topic,
even after having read about the topic for hours.
Half the battle of studying is won by sleeping. Sleep is the only way our brains will properly retain the hours of studying we have put in.
7. What is Learning?
Educate yourself on what learning is, and sample various techniques on how to improve your learning. There are a multitude of resources for this, to the point that it may become overwhelming. There are podcasts, books, audiobooks, and even full courses. Personally, I loved the “learning how to learn” course and thoroughly enjoyed listening to podcasts in my spare time. Try to utilize some of these resources, such as listening to podcasts during downtime or during other tasks such as driving or washing the dishes.
8. Have I mentioned wellness?
This is on this list twice because it is so vital to being successful in medical school that it bears repeating. Find out what it means for you to be well, and schedule times to practice the activity that feeds that
During my research on learning, there are a number of lessons I have come to
understand, and I wished someone would have relayed them to me during my undergraduate
years. There is no time that is too early to start these practices and the earlier one starts, the
easier it will become to turn these practices into habits. No matter where you are in this journey,
we can always learn more about our unique learning styles. Do not lose sight of who you are
and what your goals are in the process, and remember that learning what works for you early on
leaves more time to do what you enjoy most.
***SheMD Side Note here... If you're looking for a deeper dive into this material, a great book to read is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. This book comes highly recommended from the medical education community on how we can best learn and is a MUST READ prior to medical school and even as an undergrad trying to figure out how to best approach college.