How to Study
I came to the realisation whilst at university that nobody ever teaches you how to study effectively. I spent my undergraduate degree writing a ridiculous amount of aesthetically pleasing but ultimately futile notes which were essentially transcripts of the lectures, only to realise when the exams came around that I didn’t know any of it. After much trial and error, as well as reading online about evidence-based study techniques, I now have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. My advice is based on the two principles of active recall and spaced repetition, which are evidence-based, high-yield study techniques.
I don’t want to go into the details of the evidence base behind active recall and spaced repetition, but I think a little background information could be helpful.
Active recall involves stimulating your brain to retrieve information by testing yourself. By trying to think of an answer, you are being active in the learning process which is much more time-efficient than passively re-reading information. This helps with memory and allows you to identify weaker areas in your knowledge, so you know where you need to improve.
Spaced repetition is all about interrupting the forgetting curve, which is a model to show memory decline over time. The more often you interrupt the forgetting curve, i.e. by repeatedly going over the same bits of information at regular time intervals, the greater your retention of the information will be over time.
As much as I enjoy (and still find some value in) taking written notes, the evidence base really isn’t there to support long-term retention of information. If you’re like me and can’t resist making notes, I’d make these as concise as possible and use the process of note-taking to process the information and aid your understanding, rather than retain and recall. Where possible, I find it helpful to add links and references to external resources where the notes have already been made.
These can be hand-written flashcards or created using online platforms such as Anki or Quizlet. I personally prefer creating online flashcards as it is a lot quicker and easier to personalise by incorporate images and different coloured text, etc. Platforms like Anki have tools such as image occlusion, where you can hide parts of an image then test yourself on the hidden parts, and Cloze deletions, where you remove a key word from a phrase then test yourself by trying to recall the key word. You may want to use a deck of flashcards created by someone else to save time. While many people prefer this, I personally find the process of creating flashcards important for understanding information before you try and commit it to long-term memory.
Flashcards are best for active recall of bite-sized facts. As a medical student, I used them for questions with simple/one-word answers such as “which nerve innervates the diaphragm?”. Repeatedly going over your flashcards at intervals based on the ones you get right/wrong also utilises the principle of spaced repetition. Anki cleverly has a built-in algorithm for spaced repetition. I wouldn’t recommend flashcards for longer questions as these can have more varied answers which can be difficult to squeeze onto one side of a flashcard and you’ll find yourself skipping the flashcards which you know have longer answers.
Past paper questions
I used to think these were only useful in the revision period, but I now realise they’re a great resource to test your understanding and memory throughout the year. These may be supplied by your university or accessed online from third parties. Again, this utilises spaced repetition, interrupting the forgetting curve and improving long-term retention of information with each exposure. As I work through the questions, if I get one wrong, I use it as an opportunity to take some time to read around the subject, maybe watch a YouTube video on the topic and update my notes with the information I didn’t know. I may even make a flashcard on any key concepts that can be easily transferred to flashcard format. This method also helps you become familiar with the style of exam questions, so you won’t be taken aback on the day.
And no, I’m not talking about the pretty mind maps that are essentially copies of your lecture notes that take you all afternoon to make. Pick a topic or lecture that you want to revise for the centre of your mind map then write down as much as you can remember (without checking your notes) around the subject in the centre. Then, when you can’t remember anything else, refer to your notes to fill in any blanks with a different colour. This uses active recall and helps you identify weaker areas of your knowledge/memory so you can then focus on these to improve your overall understanding of a topic.
I hope this has been helpful and has given you some new ideas for efficient study methods. Whatever your preferred study method is, try and incorporate the principles of active recall and spaced repetition as these are high-yield and essentially mean you will spend the minimum amount of time necessary to learn any quantity of information. Good luck!