Learning to Learn as a Medical Student

For an instructor’s perspective on these study strategies, check out the companion post by Alyssa B. Smith’s sister Dr. Megan A. Sumeracki.

By: Alyssa B. Smith, third-year medical student, Chicago Medical School

I began at Chicago Medical School believing the notion that my study methods had gotten me into medical school, so they could therefore get me through medical school. I quickly realized that was a false perception. The volume of material, necessity to retain this material past each exam, and building of knowledge requires stronger learning methods than those I had used in the past, like relying on flashcards to memorize topics.

That’s when I turned to the six study strategies—including spaced practice, interleaving, and elaborate integration—I had been given not only by my sister Megan Sumeracki, a cognitive psychologist who captured them in a recent Academic Medicine Last Page, but also by the Office of Academic Support. During a seminar at my medical school orientation, the faculty warned us that while we were all top students, medical school is extremely challenging, and what we were doing before may not lead to the same results in the medical program. Instead, we should adopt a set of six study strategies that are evidence-based.  Now, I integrate all six into my studying.

To incorporate these learning strategies, I created study schedules at the beginning of each week, switching between at least two separate topics, like anatomy and physiology each day to practice interleaving, and each topic on multiple days to accomplish spaced practice. I found that I could combine retrieval and elaboration strategies because my medical school curriculum is organized by body system, which aligns all courses.

Dual coding, or illustrating a topic, is one of my favorite study methods. There are several study materials available for students that relate details and concepts through memorable pictures that tell a story. I sometimes make my own as well. When I think of Von-Hippel Lindau disease, I always visualize a classy English hippo with red eyes, red spots, and a kidney and adrenal image on its flank. Never will I forget the retinal angiomatosis, hemangioblastomas, pheochromocytomas, and renal cell carcinomas associated with the disease. I’ve also utilized vignette style practice questions as concrete examples of patients with these diseases.

My six new methods of studying have helped me retain more in the long-run than traditional study strategies. Too many students fall into the trap of studying only one subject each day, which leads to good performance on course exams, but then much of the information is forgotten when studying for board exams at the end of the basic sciences medical curriculum. As doctors in training, durable learning is extremely important. We need to retain material for board examinations and beyond so that we appropriately diagnose and treat patients.