Medicine From The Trenches

Experiences from medical school, residency and beyond.

Study Skills Part V


This is the fifth part of a series that I have been working on since starting this blog. From time to time, I will keep adding to this material as much as possible. For this installment, I want to “get into your head”  for you to get the best results of your work. Previously, I have discussed things like taking notes and organization. You need to keep your studies as organized as possible. If you are working and trying to attend school, your organization skills have to be outstanding.

Adjust your thinking for best results

As you move into the next semester (or next class /group of classes),  start  working on getting your thought patterns together. There is no class taught at any university or college that cannot be mastered by any student who is willing to put in the time needed to master the material presented. As I have stated in other posts about study skills, consistent and regular study will get the best results for most students. It is extremely rare for an individual to be able to sit down the night before and exam and expect to master everything that is up for testing. If your fellow classmates are telling you that the “last-minute cram” gets the best results for them (“I always get an A when I only look at the material the night before the test.”), they are likely lying to you about the time that they are putting in. For some people, lying about the amount of time needed for study allows them to believe that they have a superior mind over the rest of us. Congratulate them and keep to your plan to get your work mastered. What another student does (or does not do) is meaningless in terms of what  you need to do for complete mastery of your studies. Keep in your thoughts that the “superior mind” is the one that get the best results period and retains the information over the long term not the last minute crammer who loses the knowledge because it is never in their long term memory.

Rate My Professor and other review sites

Going to sites like “Rate My Professor” might seem like a great idea but remember that most people who post to those “review” sites tend to be the folks who had problems in courses.  Not all of the problems that a student might have is due to the professor. Most professors do not gain “academic points” for making sure that most of the students in their courses earn grades of C or less.  Most professors do not gain “academic points” for making sure that most of the students earn grades of A either. In terms of teaching, the professor is most likely the most redundant element in your learning experience. A professor should know their subject matter and be able to point students in the right direction for the student to earn their best grade. It is counter-productive to learning at the college level, to expect that your professor is your sole resource in any subject matter. While your professor should be able to help you navigate a subject, you need to have the confidence that even if the professor wasn’t there, you could master the subject material. In short, don’t attempt to develop any personal reactions to or concerning your professor. Utilize a professor for what they do best which is, being a good resource for things about a subject that you, the student, might need. A professor doesn’t care if you “like them” or you “don’t like them”. Since most professors are tenured, a student’s likes or dislikes do not figure in the learning equation one way or another.

Since the professor is essentially a redundant element in your learning; this means that your actual “learning” isfar more dependent upon you being able to incorporate the information into your knowledege base so that you may be able to utilize it. The professor, while being a resource, it not your sole resource or the ultimate resource that will enable you to make the most of a class. If you anticipate application to professional school such as medicine or dentistry, you have to master the building of a solid knowledge base that you can tap for the situations that will present for  you in the future such as your Medical College Admissions Test or the Dental Admissions test where you will be asked to apply your knowledge base to any of a variety of problem situations. Being able to problem-solve is a characteristic of an individual and not of any one particular professor or school for that matter. Learn to garner as much knowledge as you can in any particular class with the realization that any professor can provide what you need.

“Weed-out Courses”

I don’t know how many times I have head the phrase, Physical Chemistry is the “weed-out” course for a chemistry major or Organic Chemistry is the “weed-out” course for a pre-med student. I have taken both of these courses and frankly, found Physical Chemistry more enjoyable than Organic Chemistry but both were the subject matter of my major which I mastered throughly. I refused to give any course, or subject matter, more deference then it deserved. Physical Chemistry was a great course that allowed me to use my math tools to describe the physical aspects of chemistry and chemical reactions. Organic Chemistry was a course that taught me much about developing synthetic themes and the mastery of carbon-based chemistry (useful for understanding Pharmacology). Since I took these courses as a sophomore in university, I just packed the knowledge from these two courses into my chemistry knowledge base.

As people around me spent hours lamenting how “rough” these two courses would be, I spent most of my time figuring out the best strategy to do well in these courses because I needed the information presented there. There was only one section of Physical Chemistry at my university that was taught by two professors fall and spring semester. In short, I didn’t have a choice in terms of  professor “shopping” if I wanted to take this course. I did make sure that I had the math background for mastery of the Physical Chemistry course material (I was taking Applied Differential Equations at the same time) and I did make sure that I thoroughly mastered the material presented both in problem-solving and in lecture. In the end, Physical Chemistry was a very enjoyable course that allowed me to apply physics to chemistry and solve problems. The course took plenty of time, especially the lab write-ups, but the course challenged me on many levels which was great. In short, don’t have any preconceived notions that a course is going to be “so hard” that you can’t perform well. If you keep telling yourself that the course is too difficult, the course will become too difficult.

Your Less than Helpful Classmates

Interaction with your classmate can be intellectually stimulating and provide an important and crucial means to solidifying your mastery of a course especially the science courses. While a great interaction experience is wonderful, in reality, you will encouter classmates (lab partners) who will be happy to allow you to do a bulk of the work while they receive an equal share of the grade for a collaborative project. You, will have to master the skills necessary to get the most out of the project and your less than “helpful” classmate. First of all, you grade depends on your finding a balance that will enable you to get the strongest grade. If your grade is important to you, then you do what is necessary and worry about the “sharing” of project duties later. This means that when you encounter a partner who isn’t will to pull an equal share, you don’t have all semester to try to “cajole” this person into being a good partner. Sometimes, you have to deal with the “hand” or in this case, the “partner” as best you can so that your work doesn’t suffer. Don’t let resentment for your partner’s lack of participation cause you not to get the best grade possible. In short, sometimes you have to “take up the slack” and do what you know will provide the best grade. It’s not “fair” but it get the job done. Just don’t let yourself be partnered with the “slacker” under any other circumstances. You can also state clearly why you won’t work with that person again unless there are no alternatives.

It’s always important for you to keep your grade and work in the forefront of you efforts. I will state over and over for emphasis, “what another student does or does not do is meaningless in terms of your grade.” In short, you have to look out for yourself and keep your work at the highest level. As a professor, when I assign group projects, it’s very easy for me to see who is the leader, the follower(s) and the slacker(s). Most people do not change their style over the course of one project or one semester. As an educator, I also make sure that every person in a group project is not so dependent on the others in the group that one person who has worked strong and hard ends up “making up for” or “carrying” the slackers. Again, keep your work ethic and don’t worry about others unless they are impeding your progress to the point that you can’t learn. Under that situation, you need to write down specific instances of the impedements and present them to the professor after you have presented them to the person who is impeding you. Some people are so self-absorbed, that they don’t realize they are not pulling their share or that they have become a weak link in an otherwise strong group.

Group Study

Having a study group is a great strategy for both undergraduate or professional school. Some things that make group study efficient are the following:

  • Keep the group to 4 or less people. Large groups become unmanagable. If you want to collaborate with another study group of 4 or less, then do so but keep your primary group small.
  • Have a study plan (agenda)  for the amount of time that you will spend together. This should be no more than one week’s worth of materials.  Don’t try to do a whole test’s worth of review in one study group meeting. It’s counter productive to full mastery.
  • Do your individual study before you work with a group. While other folks can give you a different insight, they can’t be the sole source of your learning.
  • Get away from school if possible. A Starbuck Coffee Shop meeting or group study room in the library is good so that other folks in the class won’t disturb your group study.
  • Distractions and interruptions abound when you and the group have an exam in the near future. Try to find a method of keeping the socialization to a minimum while keeping the study to a maximum. Sometimes having one person write down a summary of a discussion or questions that the group can’t answer is a good strategy for getting back on track.
  • If you get hungry/thirsty and you find that the group is getting “off track”, stop while you refresh so that you can get back to working more efficiently. Sometimes, walking around the room or getting a drink can help to clear your mind.
  • If you are having trouble with some of the material, get your questions stated and answered before you meet with your group. If some of your group members have a stronger grasp of the material than yourself, don’t worry about it. This is why group study works well.

Finally, remember that you are the ultimate person who is in charge of your learning. Your coursework is your job and you want to be the ultimate professional on the job at hand. When you sit down to study, give it your best effort. If you are tired and distracted, try to get rid of the distractions, rest a bit and then move to your studies. I can tell you that as a medical student, resident and practicing physician, I had and have to study when I am sick, tired and distracted. I have learned to hone in on what I need to master while tuning out the rest. Learn to master study when you are tired and learn to refresh yourself often. Sometimes your brain just needs a break which means that you divide your study periods into shorter bursts rather than one long session if you are tired.


4 January, 2011 - Posted by | academics, medical school, study skills


  1. Thank you drnjbmd for responding so quickly to my post. I forgot to mention can you please suggest a way I can fix this dilemma I am having with my studies. Even before class begins I find out who the prof is and get the most recent syllabi of that prof and follow it to a capital “T”.

    What I mean for example, is I read on the syllabi the prof will be teaching during the first week the integumentary system. So, I try to find everything I can online about this system associated with the textbook and the prof. Then, I find the next system she/he will be covering and do the same thing. I think I am ahead of the class because I already have the syllabi at hand and have all the notes and power points etc. (I have learned that most profs don’t deviate too much from the past, so I think I am ‘safe’.) What happens is I am too overwhelmed with too much information. When class begins I don’t know where to start. Can you suggest a way where I can be ahead of the class (game), but not feel so overwhelmed at the same time once class starts? (I hope this makes sense.)


    Sandra 😦

    Comment by sandra | 7 May, 2013 | Reply

    • To Sandra:
      You don’t need to spend hours online if you have a textbook. Preview and then read the assigned pages in the text; listen to the lecture and take notes on things mentioned in lecture. If outlines are provided, utilize them for organization of the material. Review the previous lecture notes and then review the current lecture notes. At the end of the week, review the previous weeks notes. You don’t need to “over” collect information on the internet. The text and notes should be detailed enough. You can ask questions of your professor (during office hours) if there are things that you don’t understand but it seems as if you are adding to your workload instead of working efficiently. I change my syllabus every time I teach a particular class. In medicine, things change rapidly. The first day of the class is early enough to get a syllabus and you have plenty of time to master the material if you work for efficiency and review often.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 7 May, 2013 | Reply

  2. Sorry for the typos … What I am trying to coney is, I am a non-traditional student and I am in awe! I realized after all these years I do not know how to study. Now, after reading ‘SOME’ (haven’t finished reading everything on here yet) of your ‘tips’ I have come to realize I need to fix my skills FAST and SOON since I am planning to go to Physician Assistant school. I want to thank you for all your hard work on here. I am curious though, who taught you all these gems? If you think about it, our parents really did not teach us how to study they just told us go to our room and study. Our teachers are/were the same. I guess what I am trying to say is keep up the good work on here and out there in the real med world. Thank you for being YOU!

    Comment by sandra | 6 May, 2013 | Reply

  3. I am a non-traditional student and I am in awe! I realized after all these years I do not know how to study. Now, after reading ‘SOME’ (haven’t finished everything) yet of your ‘tips’ I have come to realize I need to fix FAST and SOON since I am planning to go to Physician Assistant school. I want to thank you for all your hard work on here. I am curious though, who taught you all these gems? If you think about it, our parents really did not teach us how to study, they just told us go to our room and study. Our teachers are/were the same. I guess what I am trying to say is keep up the good work on here and out there in the real med world. Thank you

    Comment by sandra | 6 May, 2013 | Reply

    • To Sandra:
      I was a good and disciplined student throughout secondary and undergraduate schools. I spent some time thinking about how I processed and assimilated information when I was a graduate student. Since I was teaching, doing research and some clinical work I needed to be as efficient as possible in mastery of my knowledge base (graduate school success depends on a very deep and detailed knowledge bank (opposite of medical school). When I started medical school, I reversed most of my techniques that had worked well in graduate school. At the end of my first two weeks of medical school, I tossed anything that wasn’t efficient and kept what worked. At this point in my career, I just keep on building upon my knowledge base and clinical experience. The more patients I can see, the more I appreciate how much basic science I have accumulated. I also teach (medical and physician assistant students) which keeps me reading journals and revising the information that I teach. There are no shortcuts to having a strong knowledge base thus I keep adding to mine. The most valuable lesson that I learned is that no one “teaches” you anything; you teach yourself and constantly add to your experience/knowledge base. You have to assimilate and process information from textbook reading (before lectures) and clinical observations.

      Comment by drnjbmd | 6 May, 2013 | Reply

Leave a Reply or ask a Question.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: