The task of studying for medical school can be never-ending if a student does not know how to properly study or record notes. This page provides peer-reviewed discussion and tips to be more efficient and effective in learning your study habits and ways to improve your note-taking during medical school. For peer-reviewed evidence and support for study skills, see Abdulrahman et al. (2021).
Preview (before class)
Take 10-15 minutes before each class to skim the day’s lecture material
Focus on objectives, headings, keywords, diagrams
Formulate a mental roadmap of the main points to be covered, and questions you’d like answered
Listen, Practice and Take Notes (during class)
Ask questions, if applicable to class format
Document key concepts the professor emphasizes (concepts which are elaborated, repeated, exampled, etc.), topics needing clarification, and answers to your questions
Read and Create Study Aid (after class within 24-48 hours)
Read textbook sections covered in class, if applicable
Seek clarification for gaps in understanding
Synthesize information from lecture, reading materials, and other resources into a study aid
Effective study aids are:
Actively created (drawing is more active than writing; writing is more active than typing; typing is more active than reading); the more active your study aid, the better your recall
Condensed to just the key concepts: you must decide what is important, based on emphasis from professor
Summarized into your own words and organized into personally meaningful formats (outlines, concept maps, diagrams, graphs, etc.); identify relationships within/between material
Visually appealing to you – to the point that you can “see” the information on your study aid when you recall it during test time
Review (weekly, and before exams)
Review your study aids from the entire week (or block, semester, etc.)
Refer to text, lecture notes, and other resources only if you discover concepts on your study aids requiring revision or clarification
Write and answer possible test questions; ask “why”, “how”, and “what if” type questions
Utilize a study partner/group to identify and practice potential test questions, and explain concepts aloud
Assess your Learning (periodically, after assessments especially)
Am I using study methods that are effective?
Do I understand the material enough to explain it to others?
Engage Actively with Material:
Don't just read, it's too passive
Question the material.
use active reading techniques such as SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review (SQ3R)
Don't just highlight, it's not enough
Make notes – create a condensed representation of your understanding of the most important material
Cornell Notes – key words, associated details, and main points (see Cornell Notes section below)
Concept Maps – visual outline showing relationships between concepts (see Concept Mapping section below)
Drawings – a picture can be worth a thousand words (especially if YOU draw it!)
Flowcharts – great for pathways, processes, cause/effect
Tables/Matrices – great for compare/contrast, categorization
Use effective, active learning techniques
Study your most challenging material when you are most mentally alert
Find motivation in the desire to learn and understand to the very best of your ability
Following the five steps of SQ3R can help you to process and remember what you read more effectively.
Skim the material to get the main ideas. Resist reading at this point, but try to identify 3 to 6 major ideas from:
title, headings, and subheadings
introduction and conclusion
figures, pictures, charts
Question as you survey. Generate questions (in your own words) based on headings, figures, and the major ideas. Reading without questions to answer is passive and a waste of time! Questions you formulate will focus your concentration as you read since it encourages you to search for answers, thus making the reading active.
Read to answer your questions. Actively search for the answers to your questions. Since you have already selected the important material (through your questions), you should be able to read selectively and separate out the "fluff" that is not as important. Think about how this new information fits with that you already know.
Recite after you’ve read:
Orally answer your questions or summarize the major concepts.
Take notes in your own words; research shows that we remember our own (active) connections better than ones given to us (passive).
Connect things you have just read to things you already know.
The more senses you use, the more likely you are to remember what you read – seeing, saying, hearing, writing!
Reviewing, by testing yourself, is meant to be an ongoing process. Test your understanding by asking yourself the questions that you identified. Review your notes, modifying and/or adding to them as necessary to fill in gaps in your knowledge. Your notes can be used to review for a few minutes daily, weekly, monthly, etc.
No one note-taking style works for all medical students. Learning your learning style (visual, auditory, or tangible) will help you to identify ways to be more effective, efficient, but most importantly, practical in improving your note-taking. The Med School Insiders YouTube channel offers a condensed overview of different ways to take notes in medical school, found here.
Below are other methods that might be beneficial to adopt or master.
Cornell Notes format:
The Cornell note-taking system (developed by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University) is a method for organizing and condensing notes, and is especially helpful for synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information.
Some students use this format to take notes during lecture (on the right side), but you may also use this after lecture to organize, summarize, condense, and consolidate your notes from lecture and any other sources you might utilize. For efficient review, your goal should be one source containing the most important information – your condensed notes.
Making these notes is a time-consuming step-up front (strive to create your notes within 24-48 hours after lecture), but it will save you time as you review. Instead of reviewing volumes of material, you'll review just your notes.
The left side of the paper is for key words and very brief phrases – recall cues. The right side of the paper is for the ideas, facts, and details tied to the items on the left. You can start with either side. It might feel more comfortable for you to start with details and then identify the key concepts from the details. Or, if you have the important concepts identified from lecture, you can start with those and then add the necessary details. Only add as much detail as you need to explain the concept on the left; don't waste your time writing things you already know. Leave space in between ideas so that you can add more info later if you need to (like during weekend review or review with other students).
In the summary section at the bottom, summarize the objective/topic/concept, etc., in your own words. Or, especially if you’ve been surprised on exams in the past, compose the 2-3 most likely test questions from the material. This will facilitate critical thinking and help you make connections amongst the material. Think about how this new material connects with what you already know, both within this course and across courses.
When you review your notes, cover up the detail section and attempt to explain aloud the concepts on the left and answer any questions you wrote. And don’t skip the aloud part! As you recite out loud to others or to yourself, you’ll better identify gaps in your understanding…self-testing is very important!
Concept mapping is a visual representation of the relationships between concepts. This method can be used to summarize virtually any kind of material you are trying to learn.
Select the topic to be studied. Since it is going to be subdivided, the size of the topic is not critical. It can be part of a lecture or material that is covered in several lectures, or you can identify a focus question. Identify by listing or highlighting facts and concepts that are important to the topic you will be mapping (especially those emphasized during lecture). You might find it useful to write these on small sticky notes, one per note, in very brief form (single word or short phrase).
Rank the concepts from most general to most specific. If you're using sticky notes, create groups and sub-groups of related items, emphasizing hierarchies. Feel free to rearrange items and introduce new items that you omitted initially. Note that some concepts will fall into multiple groupings. This will become important later (cross-linking).
This can be done by drawing (or arranging sticky notes) on a large sheet of paper or a white board, or by utilizing concept mapping software. On a large sheet of paper, arrange the map with the most general concept at the top or center, linked to the less inclusive concepts. The lines linking the concepts can be labeled to explain relationships, if desired. Arrowheads can show direction, cause-and-effect, etc. Try to come up with an arrangement that best represents your understanding of the interrelationships and connections among groupings. Think in terms of connecting the items in a simple sentence that shows the relationship between them. Leave space to grow your map as you review.
Look for and draw cross-links. Cross-links are links between concepts in different concept groupings and show how those groupings relation to one another. This is a powerful step in developing integrative thinking.
Reviewing the Concept Map
You want the map to make enough sense so that you can verbalize complete thoughts without referring to your text or lecture notes. In reviewing your concept map, consider the following:
Accuracy and thoroughness: Are the concepts and relationships, correct? Are important concepts missing? Are any misconceptions apparent?
Organization: Was the concept map laid out in a way that higher order relationships are apparent and easy to follow?
With technology incorporating itself into virtually every aspect of our world, medical school included, the temptation to use phones and laptops is almost irresistible. While these devices can be used with great efficiency, students often are more distracted than productive while using them. Pyörälä et al. (2019) assessed the use of mobile devices in medical students and identified the most efficient practices of using them to take notes. Read the study here and compare your habits with their findings.