Figuring out if you should make med school notes is something a lot of us face. This article takes an honest look at it.
Here you’ll learn:
- What you need to think about when it comes to med school notes
- My opinion and strategy
- How other students use and take notes
I’ve managed to get through the last two years of my med school curriculum just fine without notes.
But is it the right decision for you?
Let’s take a look.
Should You Take Med School Notes?
Deciding to take notes in med school is an independent decision. Where in the past, most students would say definitely do it, today’s med students think differently. Thanks to new technology and learning strategies, it’s not as fundamental as it once was.
Still, if you’re having trouble deciding on an approach, here are five big questions to ask yourself.
- Do you have time?
- Do you plan on going to class?
- Are you sure you can do a good job?
- Can you diagram?
- How organized/disciplined are you?
Thinking about each can help you settle on a study strategy.
Let’s go deeper.
1. Do You Have Time?
This is the most important question. Taking notes in med school won’t be like anything else you’ve likely experienced. There’s a mountain of classes.
To show you, here’s the folder from my upcoming genetics exam…
That’s just one semester of seminars. I didn’t even file the lectures yet.
The first thing you’ve got to understand is that it’s impossible to take notes on everything you’re expected to learn in med school. You can aim for as comprehensive a set of notes as you like, but it’ll never be complete.
With that in mind then, is that really something you want to take on?
If you feel you can’t avoid transcribing notes from lectures or classes word-for-word, you’ll want to be doubly careful. Attempting to capture everything will only slow you down.
Pitfall #1: Don’t Rate Judge Your “Efficiency” On Your Notes
One pitfall that trips up a lot of students is equating the amount of notes they have as how efficient or hardworking they are.
This is a fake sense of accomplishment. The moment you take your first exam you’ll see just how true that can be. A ream of notes is no promise of a top grade.
Although there is some small evidence it can help .
Pitfall #2: Note Fatigue
Another thing worth mentioning is burnout. For the sake of staying sane in med school you’ll want to have time for activities other than studying. Because notetaking can be a serious time sink, you’ll have fewer opportunities as a result.
Are you prepared to make that sacrifice?
Tip #1: Use Your Lecture Handouts
If your med school provides lecture or class handouts (most will), then taking extensive notes becomes even more pointless.
Often the critical points – and those most likely to be examined – are included on these.
Build your study around them.
2. Do You Plan On Going To Class?
Some med schools make class attendance mandatory. Others won’t mind if you skip lectures.
Either way, taking notes in either can be a good idea if you want to stay focused and awake. Doing so will force you to listen more attentively than you might otherwise.
How To Take Notes From Medical School Lectures
If you do plan on going to lectures it’s a good idea to have a strategy in mind beforehand. Here are some of the more common methods you can use to make effective notes in this regard:
- Check-list method: skimming over the subject beforehand and making a list of 8-10 core concepts. Then checking off each concept when you hear the lecturer address it. Doing this can help prime your brain and determine the key ideas.
- Annotating handouts: printing or downloading the handouts and adding your own ideas or questions in the margins.
- Cornell method: dividing your notes into two columns; one with question prompts on the left and one with bullet-style notes on the right.
- Outline method: “nesting” concepts into headings, subheadings and bullet points to categorize the information.
The important thing is to avoid transcribing and keep things as active as possible.
3. Are You Sure You Can Do A Good Job?
Many keen students might try to convince themselves that the notes they make are key to their success. Although this could be the case, it’s more probably the opposite.
Can you really create something better than a commercial study guide?
My own conclusion here was that I couldn’t. That’s why I eventually went hunting for the best resources that I could (something I touch on in my article how to use the 80/20 rule to study medicine).
The same can be said for the study guides passed down from older year students. Sometimes the work has already been done for you. And sometimes much better.
Will You Use Active Recall Principles?
Active recall study methods are evidence-based and probably the most efficient way to study medicine. If you don’t employ these methods when you take notes – by periodically reviewing them by crafting quiz questions etc – then is it worth it?
Many students just highlight, rewrite and reread.
Will You Complete Your Notes?
Not revisiting and completing your notes is another reason the whole exercise could be a waste. How dependable are you to go back, add or clarify things you’ve later learned? Incomplete notes can verge on the unreliable very quickly in a field as fast-paced as medicine.
4. Can You Diagram?
Being able to draw and diagram is a massive plus when it comes to making a great set of notes. Several studies show this .
If your skills aren’t that sharp, or you simply don’t like adding graphics, then you’re probably shortchanging yourself.
Another reason why textbooks, online learning platforms and YouTube can be much better tools to use.
5. How Organized/Disciplined Are You?
Archiving your notes, figuring out naming and folder systems etc, is another huge part of making effective notes. If this is something you have no experience with – or something you’ve tried and failed at many times before (like me) – then maybe that’s a sign.
One way to get round this of course is to use digital notes over paper notes. They might not be as sound when it comes to learning (according to this study), but at least they’ll help keep everything together in one place. Making them easier to pull out and reference too.
Of course I did buy an iPad and Apple Pencil with this idea in mind at one point in my med school career. But that didn’t really work out.
Verdict: Is Taking Notes A Waste of Time?
For me personally, based on these questions, taking notes in med school is a waste of time. I’d much rather save time by using:
1. A reliable study guide (see my recommendations for suggestions)
2. A comprehensive flashcard deck
3. A solid question bank or book
And learning directly from each of these…
But that’s just my opinion. I recognize that you might have your own preference – or may have answered all of the above questions more positively.
So don’t take my word as gospel.
Even though a fair few medics agree…
How To Study Without Taking Notes
As for the best ways to study without notes, I’d recommend a two-step strategy:
- Flashcards, question banks and review books
- Focused listening
The first step is self explanatory. I’ve written a lot about how I use tools like Anki to memorize courses like pathology, anatomy, biochemistry and everything Step 1 related.
Studying from pre-med decks is much less time consuming than attending lectures and taking notes. Use them with plugins like Amboss and you’ve got all the references you need too.
Focused listening is more the idea of reconciling active recall (flashcards and question banks) with the class minutiae of internal exams. It works similar to how this article on Cal Newport’s site explains. You can record lectures, listen to them in one pass, quickly summarize them, then listen again.
Also don’t be fooled that you need to study first before hitting question banks. I’m of the opinion you can do well learning from them directly. That’s why many US-based med students swear by UWorld.
How To Take Notes In Medical School: Reddit’s Opinion
To round off this article, I’d like to highlight what other real med students say when it comes to the question of how or if you should take notes in med school.
Here are some of the best comments…
My life and grades changed the moment I stopped making notes. Use the notes provided to you. They’re given for a reason.u/magicalcowzanga123
During lectures I open up the powerpoint and click through in unison with the lecturer, writing extra things they’ve said in the ‘Notes’ bar at the bottom of the screen. Then I go through it later and begin the process of writing it up formally on Word.u/craniocaudal
I’d agree with the idea that a few days before a test you should go through all your notes (I also cram as many Anki decks as I can) as something comes up every exam that I wouldn’t be able to answer without this final run through.u/Senor_Sherwodywody
Related: How To Study In Medical School: Reddit’s 26 Best Tips
The Next Step
The choice to take notes in med school or not is entirely yours.
I wish I’d have been more honest with myself about the subject starting out though!
Having done so, I’d definitely have saved a lot of time and disappointment playing around with strategies only for them not to work.
If you’re interested in finding out more about what I’d have done differently, why don’t you check out my article: How To Succeed In Med School?
A lot of similar dilemmas are answeres there.
Image source: @cathrynlavery 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.