5 Precise Techniques to Become the Most Effective Learner Ever

If you’re like me, you probably study by going through your notes or powerpoints, perhaps rewriting your notes, but basically making sure that you can regurgitate the information that you are given. You may take practice tests and do well, but then get to the actual test and not do as well as you hoped. You blame it on the questions being of a different caliber than those on the practice test and so you didn’t prepare for that style of questions. You tell yourself that you’ll just study with more brute force next time. You’ll go through the lectures more times, you’ll write out your notes again, and you’ll hopefully do better. But then that doesn’t always happen.

What we know about the world is exponentially growing, and it is difficult impossible to keep up. Looking at the sheer volume that we must learn as students can be overwhelming and discouraging. It makes us question whether we are cut out for this path. We live a stressful life of lectures, study groups, and examinations. And yet, there is one area that we tend to overlook that is essential for our success – how to effectively study.

The American Medical Student Association recently held a webinar on how to be an effective learner in medical school featuring Jay Phelan from UCLA who helped develop PrepU, a website that creates customized adaptive learning experiences for students in college biology, advanced placement, and nursing and medical areas. In this webinar, he spoke of five areas to improve learning, which can be helpful for learners from any level of education to consider.


1. Learning to Learn

The study methods I first described primarily constitute a passive form of learning, but we need to get active with our studying to get the most benefit. Instead of just being able to recognize information, work to understand it and actually use it. This can be done by rewriting information in your own words and taking notes instead of simply reading powerpoints.

For long-term retention, learn, forget, and then relearn the material. By going over the material over and over, it will solidify your understanding of the material as each time it will become more and more familiar.


2. Transfer

Transfer refers to taking what you’ve learned and applying it to a new situation. This leads to a greater mastery of more knowledge and can be exceptionally helpful for situations in which the exam questions aren’t similar to even the practice exam.

Not only will practicing transfer when you study be helpful for exams, but it will help you see the applications of what you’re studying to the clinic. Especially in M1, it can be difficult to understand why we need to know all of this basic science, but it can be helpful go beyond rote memorization to understand what you’re supposed to be learning as well as other areas.

For example, if you’re learning about the different immune cells and their functions, apply it to cases of patients. Maybe a patient has been infected with Staphylococcus aureus, how would the immune system be reacting? Maybe a patient has SCID, what problems would they face with this immunodeficiency? These scenarios apply the basic immunology you’re trying to learn to microbiology and clinical immunology, enhancing your understanding of all three areas.


3. Retrieval Practices

Reading will only get you so far. For example, if you’re learning to pole vault, are you going to just read about it or are you going to actually do it? To really understand it, you need to just go out and do it. The same goes for how we study.

Have your study methods reflect the test format. If your test is multiple choice, practice multiple choice questions. If you don’t have any available, write your own. If your test is free response, practice writing free response answers about the topic. This will give you practice with retrieving information in the same way as you will for your exam making it easier when it counts.


4. Using the Right Tools – Adaptive Learning

We all learn differently. What works for me, may not work for you. What works for you, may not work for someone else. It is impossible for teachers to acknowledge all of our various learning styles, which means that it is up to us to customize our learning.

If you have practice tests available, use them as a diagnostic for what areas you need to work more on. Actually go through your wrong answers and look up more information on those areas (that is how I studied for the MCAT and it was quite successful). If you don’t have practice tests available, develop another way to diagnose your weak spots and use that to figure out where you should focus your studying.



5. Expert vs. Novice Knowledge Representation

Your instructors are great resources not just for learning for class but for career planning, politics of medical education, learning how to communicate effectively, navigating beyond your comfort zone, and basically anything related to becoming a successful doctor. Take advantage of their expertise to learn these practical applications of their knowledge as well.

Go to office hours. Ask them things like “If you were a student in this class, how would you spend your study time? How does this differ from how you actually spent your time when you were a student?” “If you could change students in one way, what would it be?” and “What is your process for writing an exam? Is there a system by which you decide what to include and what not to include?”

Your instructors have experiences and knowledge that you will not find anywhere else. You must tap into this.

BOTTOM LINE: You have to actively engage yourself to effectively learn. Be able to generate ideas on your own instead of simply recognizing information. Use a combination of these study methods and, most importantly, prepare in the way that the exam will be. Customize your study methods to identify and focus on your weak areas. Take advantage of the resources you have available to prepare yourself for your exams and more importantly, your career. Get past rote memorization and passive learning and take a more active role in your learning.


Featured image from Tumblr | pathologicalliarwow

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Hanna Erickson, "Almost" MD/PhD

Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.