Learning something new everyday has become a worthwhile habit. Regardless if it’s work-related or just a seething sense of curiosity, the world is constantly shifting, even if just bit by bit, and we always need to be up to date with the cutting edge. We all need some study tips from time to time, don't we? And hey, it’s by no means a bad thing. Knowing how to learn is a superb trait to have!
Which begs the question - “How can we study as efficiently as possible?”. After all, time is short. Or perhaps “Is there a fulfilling way to learn?” - nobody enjoys wasting effort either.
Well, we have some good news for you! We’re going to share some study tips & tricks that you might not have heard of before™. All of them stem from our own fairly extensive experience from med school and quite a bit of research. Hence we decided to call them “mneumomedical” - memory helped by medicine. It’s a bit of a mouthful, we admit, but with just a bit of preparation you can completely transform the way you study with just these few tips & tricks!
Let’s dig right in! Our Study Tips:
1. Group & Associate
How it works:
The brain functions on the principle of relationship - more exactly on the cooperation of the cells that make up our cortex.
Regardless if it’s a song we’ve “got stuck in our head”, a new programming language that we try to interpret or a list of medications to memorise, all information is stored in the brain in the form of electrical signals. These signals, called action potentials, constantly travel from neuron to neuron, always on the move. If anything, when we try to imagine how our brains work we should lean more towards “cloud computing” and less on “CD or HDD”. (1,2)
Some information is better understood and recalled, some not so much. In a nutshell, if you group & associate the new (and by extension weaker) information that you’re trying to learn with something you already know well, you’ll memorise it much faster and easier. This process is based on the principle of adaptive neuroplasticity. (2)
Using it practically:
Let’s say, for whatever reason, that you have to memorise this table from a textbook. Looks horrible doesn’t it?
The first thing you might be tempted to try is to read out loud or in your mind every column and row in order. Then repeat the process until you finally memorize it. I’m sure this sounds familiar, we’ve all been there before. Unfortunately, this method takes time and doesn’t have lasting effect - you’ll remember for at most a day or two.
Instead, let’s make a few margin scribbles to the table that will help us group & associate:
- First off we’ll convert the numbers in order to group them under the same unit of measure. Something we use on a daily basis and know well. For us it’s kilograms. You should always do this first if you find yourself in a “number” situation.
Now that we can see them clearly, it’s easy to remember that the two heaviest animals are the 2 cows (with #1 being heaviest of the two and thus becoming a true #1) while the two lightest animals, the rabbits, have the same order (#1 then #2). We all know that a cow is heavier than any of the other animals and the rabbit is the lightest. Therefore we can visualise the sequence of weight as being:
#1 -> #2 -> Dog -> Cat -> #1 -> #2
We’re cheating a bit right now by using another technique - formulaic facts for the above grouping. But no worries, we’ll get to that part a little bit later in the guide. So stick around for the whole picture!
Now then, have a general look at the table and see what else catches your eye. Your first attempt at creating connections between elements that you are trying to memorise are always the easiest ones to spot.
- If we look at the rightmost row we can see that “Mark” is the most diverse of the “Owners” having one animal in 3 different locations. On the other hand, “Alan” is the opposite with only one location - the “Campsite”. Finally, “Alice” only has one location total that differs from the other 2 owners - the “Field”.
And just like that we created an association between the last two rows. We can go even further than this if we search for some harder to spot connections.
- Looking closely, we can notice that all the animals starting with “C” also belong to a “Location” starting with “C”.
With this study tip we managed to create a whole story from a few of the elements. Imagine what you could do if you tried this technique in a real situation and not on some weird table!
In any case, now whenever we need to access this information above we can recall that:
“Mark the diverse (3 different locations) has the heaviest and the second lightest (cow #1 and rabbit #1) as well as the dog. While Alan the conservative (campsite and “C=C”) has the other cow and cat and Alice the different has the last animal.”
2. Two Steps Forward & One Step Backwards
How it works:
Whenever we try to inform ourselves about learning and study tips in general, we always see the conversation start with Repetitio mater studiorum est (repetition is the mother of all learning) being flung left and right. This guide doesn’t differ from that intro at all! And for a good reason.
The science behind systematic review and spaced repetition has been around since before the internet and is a fairly consistent part of pedagogy training for educators. We could, for example, talk about Cecil Mace’s publication “Psychology of Study” (1968) (3) or Piotr Woźniak’s learning methods (1985) (4) but modern times have brought us plenty of alternatives in the form of ready to go software packages such as Ankidroid, Studyblue, Brainscape and others. The study tip here is to know when and where to sue them properly!
While we’d love to go into a bit more detail about the scientific background, we know you’re reading this for the practical and less for the theory. So we’re going to show you our simplified “2 steps forward & 1 step backward” approach.
Using it practically:
Whenever we study, either an online course, a textbook or just some tips and tricks for a hobby, we always have 3 steps that outline our process:
- Initial “Assault” - the first time you make contact with your material is also the first (and only time) you should go for a chaotic approach. Dive in and read through it as best as you can. Don’t think about anything else at this point but do try to go through all of it in one try.
- Refining - sometimes the study material is just straight up bad but even if it’s a competently written curricula you should still refine it for you own needs using some of the other methods we talk about in this guide (like the above “Group & Associate”). Well written materials are always flexible enough to allow the students to edit them based on their habits.
- Step Back - this is where systematic review comes in. You might feel confident about your mastery over the material after the above 2 steps but don’t fall into the trap! Long term and detailed memory only comes with repeated usage. And how can we simulate usage? Well simply by using one of the software we talked about before.
In order to find the best app for you, we recommend that you take your time and look through what the market has to offer. We decided to take a more neutral approach regarding our recommendations since variations in between apps are small and hey, nobody knows better what you need than yourself.
Start by checking out:
3. “Spell Tome” Technique
How it works:
When we say “spell tome” we do actually mean the iconic trope, yes! Popularized in literature, movies and games they are the place “where [students] go when they need to get serious but the spell was just too darn long to memorize”. (5) Coming back down to boring reality for a second (we know, we know), there is something here that we can use for studying.
Note taking, while not allowing us to create fireballs, has been an important part of our time in med school. Almost every student has a fairly large stack of refined information that they painstakingly brought together. Some are better than others, true, but the biggest issue is how many of us discard all our notes when the exams are over instead of using them as our own personal “spell tome”. The main reason for this is an incorrect method of taking notes (been there, done that) that renders them obsolete.
Luckily, you can learn from our mistakes and gain an incredible personal stock of information that you can reference at any time.
Using it practically:
Before actually making a “spell tome” we need to find a note taking technique with which we can standardize our work. While there are quite a few methods out there, we’re going to share with you a little insider knowledge - our own note template which seamlessly combines with the other tips we talk about today.
The Medtinker Notes is a note taking system derived from Cornell Notes (6) used as a systematic format for organising your lectures. They are best used for cases of synthesizing and applying learned knowledge, however they can be used effectively for recall exercises as well.
The above link contains a blank template that you can print and fill out as you need. Also check out the PDF guide that explains what each section should be used for and be ahead of the curb. After all is said and done, just store your notes in a binder of your choice and voilà - your spell tome is done, ready to be used whenever you need it most!
We want to see how your penmanship porn! Send them over on social media with #medtinkernotes.
4. Formulaic Facts
How it works:
One of the many benefits that mathematics have brought us is undeniably the ability to express complex thoughts in concise ways. A formula can express a mathematical solution to a real world problem. Ours being of course, learning. (7)
Let’s see how we can simplify ideas into easier to memorise formulaic facts shall we?
Using it practically:
Reading the small introduction above, you might have realised that we already used a formulaic fact in a previous study tip. We’ll give you a second to remember…
Yup, if you thought about the weight grouping of the animals in the group & associate tip, you got it right! If not, let’s refresh a bit.
In order to more easily remember the weight of each animal in this table...
We used the formula:
#1 -> #2 -> Dog -> Cat -> #1 -> #2
Which translates as:
Cow #1 (780) is heavier than Cow #2 (620) which is heavier than the Dog (15) which is heavier than the Cat (3.5) which is heavier than Rabbit #1 (1) which is heavier than Rabbit #2 (0.8).
A bit of a mouthful especially if you’re in a lecture and trying to take notes of what the professor said. (Although this is kind of a weird course you’re attending, eh?) We can all see why the formula is a much better option and while the example is a very simple one, it does highlight the principle very well.
Formulaic facts is all about reproducing a given statement or block of information is a simplified manner. It can be achieved with either numerical symbols (like the above example) or through diagrams.
The process of actually creating a formulaic fact is as important for understanding and memorising it as is spaced repetition. Unfortunately, we can’t give you a simplified method on this one, you’re going to have to develop your own technique. Start by thinking about how you write in shorthand and then see how you can develop it further and improve on it!
5. Setting Achievements
How it works
When it comes to long periods of studying - exam sessions, full year courses without midterms or similar situations, fatigue is a major concern. Mental burnout manifests itself not as a loud and immediate problem but more as a slow and insidious whisper that doesn’t become apparent of until the very end. (8)
An effective strategy against such issues, we found to be, the setting of achievements or goals. This recipe includes several principles of gamification - the process of adding various elements of game design to other activities. We did promise to try and make studying more entertaining, didn’t we?
Using it practically
The most typical study pattern is probably something like the above. And it’s also probably something we’re all guilty of doing before. The only thing that this achieves is setting us up for burnout. Let’s find a better way, shall we? While the principle is quite simple, we do need to stop for a second and ask ourselves some questions first before the proper study tip.
“How much information are we talking about? Is it a single book, multiple courses or a list of 120 subjects?”
- The first step is evenly dividing the amount of work into acceptable portions. A mistake all too common is taking on more than we should in the beginning and end up tiring towards the end.
- Next up is setting goals.
“How exactly will I need to use my new found knowledge? Is it a multiple question exam, a project that I need to finish or is it a long term investment?”
Just passing through the course work is not enough. It might be hard at first to establish objective ways of evaluation by ourselves for ourselves, which is where the apps from 2 steps forward &1 step backward come in. Barring those, another good option are mock evaluations.
- And finally, the reward. Positive feedback always has a more pronounced effect when trying to take up a positive habit. (9)
“What can I spoil myself with to celebrate?”
Try not to think purely hedonistic, alright? A walk in the park, a subscription to the gym or a day off is a much more healthy reward than a chocolate bar.
6. Learn by teaching
How it works
Is the motto of the university where we spent the majority of our adult life studying. Although falling somewhat from grace since 1857 due to factors we won’t get into, the students, our colleagues have always kept those words to heart. So much so that the extracurricular activity offered by the student societies arguably rivals if not surpasses the official courses provided by the university. (10,11,12)
“Growing up” in such an environment we had the occasion to acquire a very different skill set then most other universities offer; not born of passion and excellence on the part of our educators but of genuine curiosity for things that were not adequately taught. And that is the ability to learn not only for oneself but also in order to help others - learn by teaching.
Using it practically
While the art and science of teaching is a topic for another discussion unfortunately (hint hint), in this last tip of the guide we wanted to talk about a particular mentality that you should employ as often as possible.
The end game of any kind of study session is the ability to pass it down to someone else (13) but it can and should also be a factor to take into account from the start. “How would I explain this to someone else?” is the question you should ponder on.
After you start your work proper, maybe even before refining your notes, we want you to simulate a teaching session. After every other paragraph you read, equation you solve or line of code you write, do a quick 3-4 second teaching session. Even if it’s just in your mind, talking to an imaginary friend.
Of course the best experiences are still those that are as close to reality as possible. That’s why we recommend you seek out and pursue avenues that let you exercise you teaching - be it workshops run by your peers or a solo project. It might seem daunting at first, we know how it is, trust us, but you should never, ever pass on the occasion. All the work you’ve done will be for nothing if you can’t impart it with someone else.
Closing Remarks on our Study Tips
With all that being said, thank you for the time you devoted to this guide and we hope you managed to learn something new about… well, learning. Please be sure to share the article with your friends and if you considered it useful in any way, do have a look at how you can help us out!
- Dale Purves et. al, “Neuroscience, 5th Ed.”, Sinauer Associates
Leonard E. White, “Medical Neuroscience”, https://www.coursera.org/learn/medical-neuroscience
Cecil Mace, “The Psychology of Study”, Pelican Books
Piotr Woźniak, “Supermemo”, http://supermemo.com
TVTropes, “Spellbook”, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpellBook
Walter Pauk, “Cornell Notes”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornell_Notes
Wolfgang Rautenberg, “A Concise Introduction to Mathematical Logic”, Springer Science
Costa EF. et al, “Burnout Syndrome and associated factors among medical students: a cross-sectional study.”, http://www.scielo.br/pdf/clin/v67n6/05.pdf
Richard Gross, “Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour 7th Edition”, Hodder Education
Romanian Student Surgical Society, http://sscr.ro/en/our-history
Scientific Organisation of Medical Students, https://www.soms.ro/about
The Bucharest Medical Student Society, http://www.ssmb.ro/desprenoi.html
Caren Stalburg, “Instructional Methods in Health Professions Education” , https://www.coursera.org/learn/instructional-methods-education