My preferred way to memorize pathology is with a combination of intensive flashcard use and plenty of practice questions. This approach leans heavily on the principle of active recall, ensuring you build your long term memory of various diseases and their key presentations. This is a similar approach recommended by a ton of USMLE students and has proven to be very successful based on their reported board scores.
This is the same method I used to ace my University’s third-year general pathology exams that I’m again using now to prepare for upcoming clinical pathology exams at the end of this semester. The best thing about it? It requires very little preparation, is well organised and involves only a small time commitment each day.
Here we’ll take a look at the method in more detail. I’ll also recommend the exact resources to use, how to use them as well as where to find them. Ready? Let’s begin.
What You’ll Need
Here’s the bare minimum set-up you’ll need for this approach (yes, I’m an Anki bro):
- Access to Pathoma’s video course: paid
- Anki computer desktop application (note: not a tablet version): free download here
- Anking’s deck (any version): download the Reddit user’s Blueskies 2010 deck for the media files (free)
Obviously you’ll need a computer or laptop to use and manipulate flashcards in Anki. You’ll also need one to practice with the related question banks I’ll recommend later too.
Note: Don’t go for a tablet over a laptop in med school. It’s really difficult to manipulate and use the mobile app version of Anki. Something I’ve found myself, thinking I could just get by with an iPad.
How to Learn Pathology Fast: Why This Method Works
Nothing in this method has been invented or discovered myself. I merely took it from r/medicalschoolanki and optimised it for my own University curriculum (I go to a European med school and have no intention of taking the USMLE). That said, I’m a huge advocate of studying like you’re going to do the USMLE. For me, the Americans just have the best and most efficient resources.
The reason I’m a huge fan of this style of learning and why it’s so fast includes the following:
- Requires no note-taking
- Streamlined and organised: just follow the process
- Has spatial repetition built-in for long term memory retention
- Cards are in the ‘cloze’ format so can be recalled quickly and easily
- All the relevant information from the best materials is centralised in one place (meaning you don’t have to go hunting for it)
Readers of this blog will be familiar with my recommendations for studying medicine effectively. This method incorporates all the science-based principles outlined there.
Pathoma Book Vs Video
A lot of people with Pathoma are unaware that the video course put together by Dr. Sattar, to supplement the book, is far superior to the original text itself. The video series distils all the major points of the book, helps visualise them with explanations, mnemonics and guided diagrams. It’s well worth investing in if you haven’t already.
I recommend watching each video at 1.5X speed or more though. But that’s because I’m all about the efficiency – and have no problems understanding his American accent!
How to Study Robbins Pathology?
There’s a simple answer here: don’t. Robbins Pathology, although comprehensive, is an absolute brick of a book. No doubt memorising it will put you in an excellent position to pass any pathology test – let alone a MBBS one though.
For me personally however, it’s just not efficient. The book is near 1000 pages. Meaning it will take a lot of re-reading, skimming and hard graft to get it all down. You’ll probably end up learning lots of low-yield material that are unlikely to crop up on a final too.
If you really do want to go down this route though – and waste a lot of valuable time – I won’t stand in your way. I’ve even put an article together to help you: how to memorize medical books.
How to Memorize Pathology: The Method
The method can be broken down into five steps. The last step is optional depending on how your studies are organised or how dedicated you are/how much you need to get a top grade.
If you’re new to Anki and need more help understanding how it works and getting started, I strongly recommend checking out The Anking channel on YouTube.
Step 1: Watch Pathoma
The first step of the method is simply to watch Pathoma’s video series. Personally I did this in the same sequence as the course itself but there’s nothing stopping you from pairing up relevant chapters with whatever the topic of your class is that week.
Pathoma is separated into 19 chapters and starts with general pathology themes. First you’ll watch videos on growth adaptations, inflammation and neoplasia. Videos vary in length but are usually around 15-20 minutes long.
Just watch the videos and enjoy the explanations. No need to take notes.
Step 2: Anki
The next step builds on the first, which contextualises the pathological concept, solidifying what you’ve learned by testing you on the information. This is where you’ll use the Anking deck recommended earlier.
First you’ll want to have downloaded the deck and import it to your Anki desktop client. You’ll also want to have added the Anki plugin; hierarchical tags 2. You can do this by going to Tools > Add-ons > Get Add-ons.
From there you’ll want to suspend all the cards in the deck so not all the cards (there’s 30,000 of them) show at once. You can do this by selecting all > suspend.
Note: Anking’s deck covers all core medical subjects. The total number of pathology-related cards that correspond to this method (and thus the ones you’ll be learning), are just over 8,000. That might sound a lot, but trust me, you’ll spend way less time going through these than you would memorizing Robbins, making a deck from scratch or taking endless notes from Pathoma yourself.
One you’ve suspended the cards you’ll then want to navigate to the section corresponding to the video you just watched. This is where the hierarchical tags plugin comes in useful. Just go to the chapter and the set of cards from the video you just watched and unlock them.
From here you simply go through the cards, attempting to actively recall the information from the video you just watched. You can use each cards’ resources section to read the relevant First Aid for USMLE section on the concept for extra context. Most cards also have an additional section compiled by the deck author with useful images too.
Hopefully you’ll see now why this deck – and this method – is so powerful.
Step 3: Spaced Repetition
Obviously for this method to really work you’re going to have to go through the cards from your deck daily. That way you’ll let Anki’s spaced repetition algorithm go to work, effectively memorising all the major concepts from Pathoma’s pathology course over time.
There’s no other way around this than discipline. Set a time and place to power through your reviews. Maybe even combine it with the pomodoro technique for extra efficiency.
A couple weeks into this method and you’ll be shocked how much pathology you’ll be able to recall at a drop of a hat.
Step 4: Question Banks
Where the double whammy of Pathoma videos and Anki give you all you need to effectively memorise pathology, doing practice questions is what will really drive mastery. Usually I’ll finish a chapter, watch all the videos and complete all the cards and then hunt down various free online question banks corresponding to a specific organ system.
One such resource I used only recently to really hammer on my knowledge of cardiac pathology is the Internet Pathology Library at the University of Utah.
Here you can search by organ system and then do separate multiple choice pathology-based exams on each. The questions here are challenging and force you to apply what you’ve learned from the previous methodical steps. The explanations as to the correct answers are particularly useful also.
Google around for other free online pathology-based question banks. Hopefully I’ll come up with a review or a list of some good ones, as I did for anatomy, in the near future.
Step 5: Consolidate with University Materials
The last step in the method is entirely dependent on you and the standards of your university. Although I feel memorising pathology from Pathoma is entirely enough to sufficiently pass a MBBS Pathology exam, you might have to go the extra mile to get a top grade. To do that you’ll have to skim over your University’s lecture and seminar materials to consolidate your knowledge. Especially if the exam draws heavily from them.
In terms of efficiently memorising pathology though, I’d say steps 1-4 in this method more than get you there!
How to Study Pathology for an Exam
Obviously, doing well on a pathology exam and memorising pathology are two separate things. Exams are dependent on short-term performance. They can also, despite your best efforts, come down to luck (or a lack of).
Performing well on exams is all about applying the material you’ve learned. For pathology it’s no different. That’s why practicing from question banks, both those borrowed from your University’s previous exams and those from elsewhere, is so critical.
Enabling you to correctly identify parts of the syllabus that you do or don’t know, doing as many questions as possible also allows you to spot patterns in the logical reasoning behind pathology-based questions.
Memorizing pathology, with the right system, doesn’t have to be difficult. Don’t seek to reinvent the wheel. Most of the work has already been done before you – and, in the case of the resources mentioned in this article, probably better too!
Capitalise on these resources and stay consistent with them. Apply everything you learn to exam-style questions that can help reinforce your memory.
As for me, I’ll let you guys know how this method works out in my regular end of semester write-up. Stay tuned.
Image credit: Andrew Neel at Unplash.