Since starting medical school three years ago, there’s one question I’ve been obsessed with; “how can I study medicine more effectively?”
During my fixation, I’ve gone deep into pedagogy (the study of education). Reading books like Make it Stick and Learning How to Learn – as well as hundreds of “how to study” articles, videos, and books – has really helped me.
So here’s how I see it…
You can study medicine more effectively by understanding and implementing active recall in each of your study sessions. Then practicing hundreds of sample questions and exercises across each subject.
In this article, I’m going to take a deeper dive and explain this process.
- What active recall is
- Why it’s so powerful when applied to your studies
- Other techniques I use to study effectively
- How you can get involved
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
What most med students get wrong (why they’re inefficient)
Whilst I’ve been fairly successful in my studies (up until now at least), I’ve seen other people around me struggle.
Developing a tendency to overthink or get in the habit of looking for shortcuts (cheating etc); some students derail their own progress.
Here’s where they typically go wrong:
- Waste time cramming (instead of spacing out study with shorter, more effective, sessions)
- Don’t question study methods (assuming it’s some other factor leading to bad grades)
- Take the path of least resistance (using passive, yet comfortable, study methods)
If most students focused more on learning the content well the first time around and then put in a small amount of effort to actively retain it, they’d be much better off.
And they’d save a ton of time and stress in the process!
So here’s what to do…
Use active recall
Active recall has been popularized a lot. Despite that, I’m still surprised by the number of medical students who don’t know about it!
The number of people I see in the library uselessly re-reading, highlighting and re-writing notes, etc, is still pretty amazing.
Active recall is just the practice of stimulating your memory during the learning process.
Unlike passive review (the stuff you might have been doing up until now), it exploits a psychological testing effect that helps build long-term retention. This means you’re more likely to remember facts months and years down the line. Long after you first studied.
Research (there’s been a lot), suggests active recall is the “quickest, most efficient, and effective way to study written materials for factual and problem-solving tests.” 
It works by testing you at all stages of the revision process.
Not just that last-minute period spent cramming!
How you can use active recall to study medicine
Here are several active recall strategies you can use to better remember things fast…
This one’s simple. Instead of note-taking, you write simple questions.
These questions are designed to target specific pieces of information that can help you understand the broader context.
The ‘Cornell Note-Taking‘ system, for example, is a good technique that does this. It moves you away from passive notetaking and gets you to think about the information you consume in terms of concept-checking questions.
Going through these questions later in the review, you’ll find you’ll remember more of what you learned as a result.
I used this technique myself to get an A in physiology following the process below…
- Learn syllabus points from a lecture, chapter or video
- Watch, listen or read while making a short list of questions on the major concepts
- Track each question in a spreadsheet
- Review each question (and try to answer them) periodically over time
This video from med school guru Ali Abdaal also explains it…
Note: the spreadsheet is available here if you’re curious.
Closed book/paused video strategy
This is a good method for people who enjoy (and don’t want to stop) reading text books or watching videos. It works by breaking down your passive activity and forcing yourself to think actively.
Here’s the process:
- Start by learning about a topic
- Pause what you’re doing and look away
- Begin recalling the main points aloud (or summarise to a friend)
- Continue until you get to a point where you’re stuck or confused
- Check back with the content and review the details you missed
- Repeat the process until you can make it through without stopping
- Repeat the whole process with another concept/syllabus topic
Doing this helps you hard-wire those hard concepts and helps you remember them faster come exam time.
New York Times bestselling author, Cal Newport, highlights this as a key strategy in his book How to Win at College.
And here’s another explanation, this YouTubers calls it the “look over check method”…
Named after the famous physicist Richard Feynman (check out Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman), this technique is similar to the closed book strategy.
It works by putting yourself in the imaginary role of a teacher.
Pick a topic and pretend to explain it to a really young learner (explain like I’m five). Break it down as simply as you can.
This YouTube explainer is quick and does an excellent job of explaining it if you’re keen to try…
Similar to the “question strategy”, you use flashcards to reinforce your learning.
Netters flashcards for Anatomy is a great example of this. A super comprehensive resource that helps you 80/20 a huge course (more on this later), the images and constant quizzing supercharges your brain.
Likewise, you can also use digital apps like Anki (my favorite) and SuperMemo in the same way.
These incorporate special algorithms that space out your learning (spaced repetition).
Combined with active recall, this is incredibly powerful.
I recommend a ton of subject-specific Anki decks here.
How to study medicine effectively: the one-two punch
Aside from these techniques, what else can you do to save time and maximize your efforts as a medical student?
Based on what I’ve learned spending hours on the excellent subreddit r/medicalschoolanki, there’s another good way. A method I like to call the “one-two punch“.
It works by combining two of the most powerful combinations above; pre-made flashcards and testing/quizzing.
First, take a look at the 30,000+ flashcard deck made by Anking (check out my article ‘What Is the Best Anki Deck for Step 1‘). Then actively practice the information you learn from this deck with question banks or books.
I should mention here that I’m by no means the originator of this strategy.
Here’s what a U.S. med student wrote me personally when recommending this approach on Reddit…
Test taking is like a muscle you need to work out on the regular with practice questions. Anki is the nutrients and diet regimen you follow to maintain those sweet gains when you’re out of the gym.
For those of you unfamiliar, r/medicalschoolanki is a community mainly for U.S. students planning to take the USMLE Step exams.
But for International Medical Graduates (IMGs) though, this site is just as invaluable.
Free decks, question banks, and excellent active recall strategies appear here almost every day.
How to use Anki
As for how I recommend using pre-made Anki cards in med school? Start by suspending all the cards in the deck and unlock the relevant cards as you go.
You can use Anki’s browser search function to help you. Find the key terms you cover in classes and lectures, then unlock the relevant cards and start practicing.
Of course, not every pre-made deck will have all the detail you’ll need to ace all of your courses.
But most have the high-yield (most important) facts. So going through them will, at the very least, guarantee you a pass. Saving you a heap of time in the process.
Pareto principle = efficiency
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) is a useful concept to think about when learning how to study more effectively.
Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the rule states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
In terms of med, this rule best applies when thinking about certain books or courses. Not all are equal. And some are much better than others in terms of the value vs time trade-off.
The best resources:
- Summarize concepts into their essential points
- Provide useful mnemonics or memory tricks
- Help save you time
These are what I like to think of as 80/20 resources!
Usually, they’re review books instead of the 1000-word textbooks most professors assign.
The time you spend running through these and getting a broad overview of the topic is far more efficient for you in the long run.
Use that time to reinforce what you’ve learned (and check for knowledge gaps) from practice questions instead.
After spending time going over some ways I think average students can better study medicine, let me end this article by restating what I believe is the best way to study medicine more effectively.
Focus and shut out all distractions to capture the primary information (via whatever method). Then quiz yourself on key concepts repeatedly and over the long term before applying those concepts to a heap of practice questions.
And that’s really it!
Doing this has several benefits:
- Helps you better understand the strengths and weaknesses in your medical education
- Exposes and prepares you (even if just a little) to concepts you’ll need later
- Gets you used to the concept of failure (so you begin to fear it less)
- Gradually develops your technique for answering multiple choice-style questions
- Bolsters long-term retention of key facts
Hopefully, this article can help convince you of the power of active recall – as well as the importance of getting in the habit of regular question practice.
Using these techniques, I’m convinced you’ll see a lot of improvement in your studies!
If you liked this article, you might find the following articles useful:
 Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at Its Best. A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors
Image Credit: @Julia Zyablova at Unsplash
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.