• Jena Martin MD

Study Prep

I have spent a lot of my life studying.

One thing about studying - everyone has an opinion about how you could be doing it better. The simplest advice, that made succeeding at medical school seem within reach, came from the father of one of my pre-med friends. He was an orthopedic surgeon and had clear directives. He told us -in med school all you need to do is just study for 6 hours, every day.

Plus classes and, well, life, this adds up to a lot of hours. But I loved how simplified it was. Forget about the skills or specific techniques. Just set the clock and study. Because at the end of it all, it is the time we put into studying that matters.

But this raises the question - how to study?

Every effective method of studying has always involved me creating something. I think the creative process helps bring in the emotional piece that really forms a memory. Here are just some of the many ways I have studied:

  • Creating a 'tree of evolution' that wrapped around my room (see picture below).

  • Listening to audio board review courses, while walking, biking and driving.

  • Making charts and guides to hang on my room to continue reading and studying.

  • Memorizing formulas while on my bike with cards taped to the handlebars.

  • Making cards of tumor and conditions labeling each important feature and writing out key points on the back.

  • Walking and reviewing notes with a friend.

  • Writing up portions of each course to share in a study group.

  • Inventing peculiar stories about cancers and drugs, to help memorize seemingly unrelated material.

Add to these methods different ways I've tried to get my kids excited about learning. I've tried to teach my kids using baking, drawing and watching videos (see this earlier post ). I know they will develop their own habits for studying - academic success is sink or swim - but I still feel compelled to help them with my advice.

Along the whole road - from premed to medical school to board preparation - I've heard so much advice about studying. Medical students are fairly obsessed with developing better study skills. I follow several Instagram pages that talk about studying, all with many pictures of beautifully curated desktops. There are highlighters and anatomy illustrations, but all of these are centered around laptops and iPads. For sure I used computers as an aide to studying, but they were a resource to consult. I am not sure how I would have utilized screens to better help me learn. I'm doubtful screen time could help.

I'm not alone in my suspicions - lots of the learning that occurs with laptop-taken notes is shallow. Studies show that handwritten notes help students synthesize information and retain it better. To take notes that summarize forces yourself to understand the material. This mental effort may be what makes the information stick, which supports a creative approach.


These studies are also only referring to writing notes. Creating your own materials and study aides takes the synthesis and effort up a notch, which might improve comprehension and retention even further.

The top of this post shows a photo of my personal flash cards that I created during my residency. They were meant for my own use. On each of them I outlined and labeled the important features. I took the pictures from journals or printed images from a color copier. On the back are the important points about each condition. In pathology we have to memorize and be familiar with every condition and disease. I was desperate to learn every tumor.

These cards look pretty; some people thought I should publish them! In general the rougher around the edges ones study projects are, the likelier they are to reflect your authentic learning style. But I remember feeling very proud of my creation and worked to create new cards. It filled me with a sense of accomplishment and that alone can really help your spirits during training. When I see today's students using beautiful bullet journals and handwritten fonts to organize study sheets, I can relate to their efforts and pride.

The best illustration I could use for this post would be a fire hydrant, spewing at full blast - that is the best analogy for how the information overload of medical training feels. You have to find your own way to get a drink. Just be sure to stand their for 6 hours a day.

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