1. Cope with information overload
One of the first things you need to know about medicine is that it’s basically an infinite subject. And it continues to expand all the time: even if you somehow managed to learn everything there is to know about medicine today, by the time you woke up tomorrow there would be hundreds of new studies published which would render your knowledge out of date. That’s a pretty depressing thought, no?
The best you can do is make peace with this fact and accept that you are simply never going to be able to learn it all. It is literally impossible and you shouldn’t try! The sense of information overload feels particularly severe during the early years of medical school when there seems an absolutely overwhelming amount of information to learn. Don’t let this stress you out! Recognise it when it strikes and learn to cope with it.
Start by figuring out exactly what information you actually want or need. If you are learning about asthma that week then stick to asthma! Don’t stray into COPD or bronchiectasis just because some smarty pants mentioned them to show off in a tutorial. Then focus in on your study techniques and resources (more on these later): if you’ve decided to make notes from a textbook then pick one, maybe two, textbooks and get to work! Don’t spread five out on the desk then drive yourself mad flicking between them. If you prefer to learn from online video tutorials then find one you like the look of and go deep on it; don’t attempt to find all the asthma tutorials on the internet, because you will just get demoralised and frustrated. There will always be more information out there and you can’t cover it all.
For more pointers, check out this great blog from the excellent Life in the Fast Lane. It’s aimed at emergency medicine doctors but loads of it applies to med students too. Information overload is something even us qualified doctors struggle with throughout our careers so you will have to learn to cope with at some point. Best to get used to it early IMHO!
Use chunks and yield
Among the many coping strategies for surviving medical school detailed in my book, chunks and yield are among the most important. These are two critical strategies for success in your studies, and particularly for dealing with information overload.
Chunking is breaking subjects down into digestible nuggets which you can work you way through, piece by piece. Any topic, no matter how vast, can be chopped up into little bits which are far easier to swallow than the whole. This makes everything feel far less daunting and allows you to steadily accumulate knowledge bit by bit, until one day you’ll wake up and realise you’ve got enough to become a Foundation Year 1 doctor!
Nuggets: much easier to digest than a whole chicken.
Yield is the simple yet crucial idea that some topics are more worthy of your time and effort than others. You can’t cover everything so you need to prioritise. High-yield topics come up often in exams and carry lots of marks; low yield is the opposite. Asthma for example is a high-yield topic, almost guaranteed to come up in written exams and OSCEs. In particular, you will need to learn the pharmacological management of asthma and how to classify the severity of an attack. Bronchiectasis, by contrast, is lower yield: it’s less common, more specialised and far less likely to come up in your exams. So focus on asthma first, make sure you know it inside out (and other high-yield topics in respiratory medicine such as COPD, pneumothorax and pleural effusions) before you even touch bronchiectasis!
Of course it can be hard at first to figure out which topics are high yield, but here are some clues to help you identify them:
They’re given lots of weight in lectures and reading lists.
They’re prevalent in the population.
They’re potentially serious.
They’re managed by GPs, A&E and general medics, not just specialists.
They come up a lot in practice questions.
Your lecturers give you a knowing wink when discussing them.
If in doubt, as you progress through medical school, ask yourself: would an FY1 need to know this? This is the level of knowledge most medical schools are aiming at for finals. Ask an FY1 if you’re on placement, or your lecturers or tutors if not. Most people want to help you out, and don’t want you to waste your time on obscure stuff you don’t need to know!
3. Embrace variety
Medical school is a long game. A very long game. Up to six years – for some of you, that’ll be a quarter of your life by the time you finish!
There is a big risk of getting bored and burned out along the way, unless you make a conscious effort to keep things fresh and interesting. The best way to do this is to embrace variety in your learning: to realise that there is no single style or method for learning medicine, but rather an infinite range of opportunities which you need to grab hold of. You can potentially learn anything from anyone, at any time in any place.
Right from day one of medical school, make an effort to broaden your horizons and avoid pigeonholing your learning style or limiting yourself to particular resources, techniques or settings. Try books, videos, podcasts, flashcards, drawing and more. Use print and electronic; study alone and in groups. Learn on ward rounds, in clinics, in seminar rooms and in lecture theatres. Listen to consultants, nurses, pharmacists and fellow medical students. Use your eyes, your ears, your hands, your head and your heart.
By using all the tools at your disposal, you will keep yourself fresher for the long haul and avoid boredom. It’s also helpful in exams when you can recall information from a wide range of different sources. The content of your learning will evolve as you progress through medical school – being an open-minded, flexible learner will ensure that you are ready to evolve with it.
4. You think you know, but how do you know you know?
Studying medicine will play some really weird tricks on your brain. One of the most common, and potentially damaging, of these is the ‘Oh yeah, I totally know that’ phenomenon. It goes like this: you spend hours studying something, to the point where you feel totally comfortable and confident on it. Then you’re asked to recall the knowledge under pressure and suddenly your mind goes completely blank. What the hell nerve supplies the wrist extensors again? Is it ACE inhibitors or beta blockers that cause a cough? And FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IS THIS ULCERATIVE COLITIS OR CROHN’S DISEASE???
No matter how well you can recall information in the comfort of your own home, it's an entirely different ballgame to do so under pressure.
Trust me, we’ve all been there. The solution to this problem is to not just passively study a topic, but actively test yourself on it as you go along, every time you study something. Instead of just accepting that you know something, you must force yourself to actually demonstrate that you know it. Here are some ways you can do that:
Tell me everything you know about sepsis in 60 seconds, bitch.
The ‘Oh yeah, I totally know that’ phenomenon is something we all experience at some point or another. You’ll never be able to avoid it completely, but hopefully by anticipating and preparing for it in this way you’ll make it a whole lot easier for yourself to recall knowledge under pressure when you need it the most.
Master time management to study efficiently
There is a myth among many medical students that you need oodles of free time in which to study. Typically, these students wait until they have a half or whole day free, then attempt to tackle an unrealistically enormous list of topics using a huge number of different resources. They are often seen in the library with ten textbooks piled up in front of them, laptop balanced precariously on top and an array of colouring pencils spread out across the desk. They start off with good intentions but quickly get demoralised, fizzle out and fall asleep face down in a book, or start texting their mates and end up in the pub by lunchtime. Trust me, this is surprisingly common!
Don't be this guy.
In truth, succeeding at medical school is NOT about how much free time you have to study – it’s all about how you use it. I am living proof of this fact, having studied medicine whilst raising two young children and commuting an hour each way. I had far less free time to study than most people, yet got distinctions and merits throughout and also won a prize.
In my view, the key is to study in short but effective bursts, and to make the most of all the time available to you instead of waiting for long slots. Got an hour free between lectures? Skim a short book chapter, make a one-page summary of your notes or sketch out some anatomy drawings. Half an hour free? Do some online multiple-choice questions, make a mind map or watch an online video tutorial. Even 15 minutes can be used for studying: electronic flashcards, for example, are perfect for this sort of very short but intensive burst.
It’s also essential to build up good routines which might seem small in themselves, but add up to pay off huge dividends over the long term. For example if you can carve out just one hour of study time every evening before dinner: hey, that’s 7 extra hours per week, 28 hours per month, and 365 hours per year. That’s huge! All from squeezing one measly extra hour into your day. Surely this is a sacrifice you can make?
We will cover more tips on managing your time effectively at med school in separate blog posts. Stay tuned!
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Excellent blog, I especially agree with the time management stuff. I was always amazed at how efficiently my friends with children studied. They always seemed more focused and straight to the point in study sessions. Some great advice there for med students - and non medics alike