Should I Skip Medical School Lectures?

One of the big questions I’ve found myself asking during my last three years at University is; “medical school lectures, should I go?” With time a constant issue and the feeling I could probably do a better job self-studying, it’s a common dilemma. And not just one solely experienced by me.

According to 2018 data from the Association for American Medical Colleges, a quarter of American medical students admit they “never attend” class for the pre-clinical years of their degree.

So here’s where I want to explore my own feelings in regards to this common medical school question. To finally figure out, now I’m at the half way point, whether skipping out on lectures (as I have been doing) is the right thing.

If you’re anything like me? Maybe this discussion could guide you.

What are You Optimising For?

I remember one of the first conversations I had in the University cafeteria. It was with a group of British international students from the 4th year. Asking them for tips and strategies, as someone just starting out, they told me just “attend everything”.

Taking that on board, I spent most of the first year doing just that. Looking back now though, I’m not sure that was the best advice. Especially considering I hadn’t worked out what I was attending lectures for.

What I’m trying to say here is that you’ve got to have some idea of what you want to get from a lecture before blindly attending. Especially if your University is like mine, and attendance (for lectures at least) isn’t compulsory.

Kevin Jubbal, of Med School Insiders, talks about the concept of optimisation here. Arguing that you need to have some purpose in mind, should you choose to attend a lecture.

The trade off? Usually comes between scoring a high mark in the class or another goal (the USMLE Step I exam in his case).

One of the key points here, weighing up the pros and cons of going to medical school lectures, is what attendance means in the first place.

Would it cost you an opportunity at an A? Or a chance to get in a difficult professor’s good books?

And obviously; how much would you care if you lost both those chances?

In my case at least; the answer is not very much. The opportunity for scoring high in finals is generally there without attendance anyway.

But you’ve got to know how your University works before you can arrive at that level of understanding.

How Important Is It?

Another key question to ask yourself when thinking about skipping class is how important you feel that subject is. Specifically in the grand scheme of your medical education.

Medical School Varna, for example, where I’m a student, has a few “low-yield courses”. Subjects like “disaster medicine” or “hygiene”, which, although important, aren’t going to make or break my clinical understanding of deep and important medical issues.

From my perspective at least, going to the lectures for these classes – especially as the slides are available online anyway – seems an unnecessary time sink.

But that’s based on the idea that I’ll review the content at a later date anyway (not the 7am lecture). Which of course, because I’m human, I don’t always do!

So this is where the case for attending lectures gathers steam. Particularly if you’re a lazy medical student who struggles to discipline themselves to review class content in your own time.

Another good argument here is the one of money.

Like it or not, you’re paying for this class anyway. Your fees pay the lecturers salary. The lecturer keeps their job by delivering a lecture. The cycle is quite simple.

Whether or not you feel it delivers value for money is obviously something subjective. Most of the time though? It depends on differing factors. How enthusiastic the professor is, how interesting the material is, how relevant you deem it to a core understanding of the subject etc.

So that’s why it’s generally a good idea to go at the start of each course anyway. Just to see what it’s all about. And help you better answer each of those questions.

Quality vs Time

Search around the internet for answers to this lecture question and you’ll see a lot of the information is very US-specific.

Obviously, depending on where you go to school, this only has so much value.

The only general-purpose answer to the question then?

Skipping on lectures should be an independent and individual decision. Assuming your University allows it.

But here’s where I see two main factors coming into play; time and quality.

Sometimes the timing of lectures – having to fit them around an already-packed schedule etc – just isn’t convenient. They may require you rushing from one venue to another. Never fully finishing up a serious study session or some other important task.

Other times they’re scheduled too early or too late. Seeping into important personal commitments that might help you stay sane and avoid the overwhelm of medical school. Things like exercise classes or social events.

Quality too is also important to consider. Is there really any point to attending a lecture if the professor just reads off slides? I’d argue you could do that just as better from the comfort of your own home. Saving time in the process.

Clearly there’s a contrary point here. Especially if a particular subject is engaging or a professor enthusiastic. Or the simple fact you enjoy it.

In this case you should obviously go. As the quality is such you’ll most likely benefit too. Especially if you know how to properly take notes and apply active recall techniques to the material.

What’s Your Alternative Plan?

If you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and still decided to skip, this following point is for you.

Not going to lectures, I’d argue? Requires a solid alternative plan.

Case in point; the one I mentioned earlier. Making the commitment to yourself that you’ll go over the material alone, in your own time. Noting down any questions you might have so you don’t develop any knowledge gaps.

Doing this though requires discipline, habit and patience. And isn’t for every medical student out there.

Otherwise you might pick a better resource to learn from. Or speak to students in years above for their recommendations on how best to handle a specific course. What you should do instead of going to the lectures etc.

The important thing is you do something viable. And don’t just let your inaction breed further inaction. Or get you into bad habits that’ll make it harder for you moving forward.

That’s why it’s important to actually track what you miss too. Keep a record of it in a planner or a calendar. And faithfully commit to covering the skipped material later.

A few extra tips for those still thinking about foregoing lectures:

  • Commit to do something else productive in that time instead (a better video, book, flashcard deck etc.)
  • Go anyway (if you have to) but use your preferred alternatives to study at the back of the class
  • Ask yourself how difficult you perceive a certain class being; can you afford not to go the lecture and not have the chance to ask questions?
  • Find out if your lectures are pre-recorded; that way you’ve got a good excuse to stay home and watch
  • Find it hard to concentrate and stay awake? Apply active learning methods instead, forcing your engagement. Or the Cornell method.
  • Recognise you don’t have to understand or remember everything in a lecture; just listen for gist!

Final Thoughts

Should you go to medical school lectures? The truth is I’m in no position to answer. I (probably) go to a completely different school to you. In a completely different country.

In my case though I do see a reason for skipping out. Especially as I know and have enough faith in myself to get the work done. As well as identifying alternative resources I’d prefer to study from.

If you have the option and are still unsure what to do though, here are what I see as the key questions to consider:

  • How important to you is scoring high in the class?
  • How important to you is a good average grade?
  • Are you disciplined enough to do the work anyway?
  • Are you committed enough to clarify things you’re unsure about?
  • How bad is the trade-off of lecture time vs that other thing in your life?
  • How would you feel about wasted money (study fees paying lecture costs)?
  • How good/bad is the lecturer?
  • How important is the lecture content?
  • Does the professor actually care for your attendance?
  • Is there opportunity to engage and ask questions?
  • Is there an easier/more efficient way for you learn the same material?

Whatever you answer to those will give you a clearer indication of what to do when it comes to your medical school lectures.

Either way, make an informed decision and go with it. You haven’t got the time or energy to waste.