I’m Forgetting Everything I Learned in Med School: What to Do?

Every year that rolls by in med school I often feel like I’m taking one step forward then one step back. Sometimes I feel the information I’ve learned compounding. Other times I’m cursing myself for forgetting so much.

Sound familiar?

What to do when you feel like you’re forgetting everything you learned in med school?

Accept that memory is fallible. Work to train it via active recall. Hard-wire neuronal connections by repeatedly testing your brain, recalling information and directly applying your knowledge.

Of course this is much easier said than done!

So that’s what this article is all about. You’ll learn:

  • How to stop forgetting what you learn
  • If you should prioritize certain things over others
  • What doctors do to keep their minds sharp

Hopefully this can help you feel more in control.

Ready to learn more? Let’s go.

How To Stop Forgetting What You Learn

Learning medicine is just like learning any other subject, everything falls at the mercy of the forgetting curve.

Graph showing the typical representation of the forgetting curve. Source: Wikipedia

Make no effort to retain the information you work hard to learn, so says the hypothesis, and eventually you’ll lose it over time.

This is a concept I’ve talked about before, especially in my ideas on how to study medicine more effectively.

Still, knowing it exists does nothing to stop it happening!

As for how to stop it (or slow it down)? The key is making an effort to remember.

You do this by:

  • Periodically testing yourself to see if you remember that concept over time (this is called “spaced repetition”)
  • Practicing the application of that knowledge with question practice
  • Explaining concepts (accurately) to others clearly without the use of prompts
  • Repeating these processes over and over (not just in the cramming periods before exams!)

For busy med students like myself then, this could look like something like this…

My workflow: daily completion of flashcard reviews (memorizing core concepts). Application of knowledge by chipping away at subject-specific question banks (reinforcing and checking for understanding). Seeing concepts play out in real-time in the clinic or class presentations etc (further reinforcement).

But this is just my interpretation of these principles based on everything I’ve read and studied about evidence-based learning techniques.

For you this could look very different!

Why memorize at all?

One of the reasons I thought it might be a good idea to write this article, having spent a lot of time already discussing how to memorize pathology, anatomy and other such subjects, is to question the activity of memorizing at all.

Aside from doing it to pass exams, how important is it really?

Here are a couple of interesting arguments…

  • You need a solid foundation (medical knowledge) for understanding why you do what you do
  • Memorization speeds up key decision making; observation, diagnosis, treatment etc.
  • Doing it successfully helps you minimise potential damage (accuracy) and provide faster, more effective care

But there’s also the elephant in the room too.

Google, tech and data being stored at the touch of a button.

Digitized memory that’s far more reliable than human memory!

Do doctors remember everything they learned in medical school?

Contrary to popular belief, doctors don’t remember everything they learned in med school. Their jobs are specialized and their training is on-going. Only some of the information they learned in school might prove relevant to their current job. So remembering everything is actually inefficient!

So if they’re fine with the act of forgetting, why is it so important to us as med students?

Obviously the answers above are good reasons why, but there’s no actual guarantee we’ll carry any of that knowledge over unless we continually and routinely work hard to keep it.

The real question comes down to return on investment (ROI).

It’s probably not worth the extra hour per day rehashing obscure bugs and drugs in microbiology when we’re extremely unlikely to come face to face with them in something like a psychiatry rotation for example.

So it’s important to prioritize and make good use of your time. And always try and answer the question…

Is it actually worth memorizing/retaining this right now?

A lot of times (unless it’s needed for exams) is no, probably not!

How Do Physicians Remember Everything They Learn in Med School?

As I’ve already mentioned, physicians don’t remember everything they learn in med school.

Those saying they do probably haven’t tested themselves enough.

What they do know however, a little of which they may learned in med school, are the things relating to their particular specialism.

But even most of that has probably come from residency training and repeated experience. And been fine-tuned in the limbic system thanks to routine!

What’s more is that it’s an impossible chase.

Due to the fast pace of healthcare and tech in general, some of the things doctors do, use and practice daily, probably didn’t even exist on a medical curriculum back when they were in school.

So self education (and learning how best to learn) plays a huge part in the role of an effective doctor.


Although I talk and write a lot about the necessity of learning medicine in order to memorize and contextualise it, it’s good to get some perspective now on again on the deeper purpose behind such effort in the first place.

For a lot of med students, the fear of forgetting only adds to the overall anxiety that comes with being a student of the subject.

This is something that’s really not productive or useful in the long term.

What I hope to have highlighted here is a more conscious discussion of the topic.

While we should strive to learn and expand our knowledge, we shouldn’t get too hung up on it either.

Most of what we forget will most likely turn out useless, while that which we do truly need to know will only really become apparent later.

Although a foundation can help with that, it’s not the be all and end all!

Image Credit: @soroushkarimi at Unsplash