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.
What to do when I feel like I’m forgetting everything I learned in med school? Based on what I’ve learned talking to other doctors and students, firstly it’s something I’ve just got to accept. Forgetting is part of being human!
But here I want to take a further look into the idea of memorizing (and then forgetting) stuff in med school. Is there any real point in attempting to learn it all in the first place? What to do if there is?
How To Stop Forgetting What You Learn in Medicine
Learning medicine is just like learning any subject, everything falls at the mercy of the forgetting curve. Make no effort to retain the information, so says the hypothesis, and eventually you’ll lose it over time.
This is a concept I’ve alluded to before, especially in my theories discussing how to study medicine more effectively.
Still, knowing it exists does nothing to stop it happening. As for how to counteract that? The key is in the hypothesis: making an effort to remember.
This is why I’m such a fan of spaced repetition programs that actually force us to recall information in graduating intervals over time.
Also why I advocate students (myself, included) doing their medical-related flashcards in Anki every day – and not just the brief periods in the run up to exams.
The bottom-line being; you stop forgetting what you learn by repeatedly practicing it.
Flashcards and apps like Anki? Just happen to be efficient for me. There are many ways to skin a cat.
Why Memorize Medicine?
One of the reasons I thought it might be a good idea to write this post, having spent a lot of time already discussing how to memorize pathology, anatomy and other such subjects, is to question the concept of memorizing at all.
Aside from exams, just how important is it?
Sure, there are some solid arguments here:
- You need medical knowledge for understanding why you do things as a doctor
- Memorisation speeds up the healing process; diagnosis, treatment, relief etc.
- Remembering helps you minimise damage and potential risk
But there’s also the elephant in the room too.
The fact that physicians themselves don’t usually claim to remember most of what they learned in med school.
So if they’re fine with the act of forgetting, why shouldn’t we be as med students?
After all, they’re keeping down a job, helping people and advancing their careers. All without probably spending endless weekends doing practice questions or working through flashcards either.
And that’s the goal of going to med school in the first place.
But still there seems to be a strange amount of pressure put on ourselves. From YouTube videos of doctors talking about how they “memorized everything” in med school, to colleagues attempting to do the same, there seems little consideration over the long term reason why.
Or what exactly is worth memorizing in the first place.
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, some of which they may have learned in med school, are the key concepts and facts relating to their particular specialism. But even most of that has probably come from residency and practice experience. And been fine-tuned in the limbic system thanks to routine and repetition.
Furthermore, most of what physicians probably apply to their jobs comes from technology or scientific principles that didn’t even exist on a medical curriculum back when they were in school. Such is the fast-pace of the field.
So a lot of what they would remember anyway would most likely be redundant in today’s practice.
Another reason to question the utility of striving to remember everything med school teaches.
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 then is a more conscious discussion over the act of forgetting things in the first place.
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 expedient, while what we do really need to know will become more apparent later.
Although a foundation can help with that, it’s not the be all and end all.
Being a doctor in the modern world involves constant forgetting, learning and re-learning.
Image Credit: @soroushkarimi at Unsplash