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Learning At Medical School: A Student’s Perspective

This article provides an undergraduate student perspective of learning and teaching in Medical School.
University of Glasgow Medical School building at night
© CC0 Creative Commons

We asked current medical student Eve Walker her views on what it’s like to study medicine. Here is what she said:

I am not going to sugar coat it; medicine is difficult. However, that is no news to you, for if you’re reading this, I can assume you have first hand experience of the demanding nature of the course or perhaps you are educating yourself, so you know what to expect before you embark on the journey.

It can be particularly difficult for undergraduates, especially those joining the medicine degree straight from school as I did three years ago. Despite the increasing efforts being made to give such students a taster of the course before they select it as the firm choice for their future, it is still difficult to convey the true nature of what an MBChB entails. Even if all the information is given, it is near impossible for a 17-year-old to fully comprehend the reality of the workload.

So, as I was that 17-year-old first year not so long ago, I have composed a list of handy hints and tips; a “How to/How not to” guide for aspiring medics. Study methods, planning your week, time management, how to avoid lecture lethargy… all will be revealed.

1.“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”

So it’s your first week of medical school. The outfit is laid out, new bag by the door. Pristine fresh stationery ready to serve its purpose. The time has come for you to start your medicine career: your first lecture. Now my advice for lectures, and you’ll hate me for saying this, is to prepare the night before. All, if not most, of the week’s content will be uploaded the week prior on Moodle – the University hub for all of your course’s content; this includes your timetable, ILOs (intended learning outcomes – the University equivalent of a syllabus) and all lecture slides.

Now how you organise this is completely up to yourself, but I like to take all the PowerPoint information for each lecture and transfer it into a Word document. I have it all laid out in the order it will be delivered so that when the lecture is in progress, I only have to type in any additional comments or explanations that the lecturer says. If you prefer writing however, I would outline the slide headings and then bullet the key facts of each and so on. This not only cuts your workload in half after the lecture is done, but it gives you a quick overview of the topic so you’re not a complete deer in the headlights when the projector fires up on the day. It is also an amazing tool to have for days with back-to-back lectures, when information can begin to snowball, and the brain fog starts descending. Having the lectures prepared prior gives you a chance to catch your breath between lectures and move swiftly on to the next.

Along with preparing your lectures, I timetable my entire week on a Sunday evening. Now this may seem excessive, but I completely believe that the most academically-able person will fail to thrive in medical school if they are not organised. This is due to the fact that the work of medical school isn’t particularly difficult; it is the sheer volume of the work that is demanding, and the pace. That is why being on top of your week is critical. Timetabling not only lays out your academic commitments, but also your personal ones. A work-life balance is essential in medical school, and prioritising your health, fitness, social life and relaxation time is just as important as knowing where your next lecture is or when your coursework is due in.

2.Lecture lethargy

Now, as I mentioned, back-to-back lectures are not uncommon. This is merely the result of a course that has so much to teach; an infinite bank of anatomy lectures, physiology lectures, pathophysiology, aetiology, epidemiology, you name it. So here are my top tips for avoiding “lecture lethargy”:

A) Use toilet breaks

Even if you don’t need the toilet, stand up and stretch your legs. Get some fresh air or splash cold water on your face. Refill your water bottle and have a chat with a friend. Sitting in the one position for hours on end will damage your posture, ability to concentrate and enthusiasm for what is being taught. Keep your body moving as much as possible in breaks!

B) Use caffeine sparingly

Now I am not an expert, but it is highly unlikely that your body requires a cup of coffee every 50 minutes to stay focussed. If anything, it will probably be more detrimental to your attention span; moreover, the diuretic effect will no doubt start taking hold and you’ll need to sheepishly ask the entire row to stand so you can make a swift exit. So limit your intake and only use it if you need a boost.

C) Take minimalist notes

This may seem counterintuitive but writing very little actually helps you learn. By giving more active attention to the lecturer and what they are explaining, engaging in the content allows for more of it to be retained, rather than frantic typing or furious scribbling. Also, most, if not all, of the content is video-recorded and posted on Moodle for revision purposes. So don’t panic if you don’t note everything, you can revisit it at a later date.

D) Technology time out

This is key for learning and retention. Despite how high-powered our brain is, there is research that suggests we are not efficient multi-taskers, and we merely switch from one task to another very quickly, reducing our total concentration time and therefore productivity. So put your phone away. Lectures are packed with information, complex and likely to be new, so they need undivided attention. Multitasking not only utilises different brain systems, but it hinders your learning by compromising how we retrieve stored information. By keeping your technology and teaching time separate, you draw a sharp line between the two activities, meaning one can’t hinder the other and you yield the greatest benefit from each.

3.Learning how to learn

So, you’ve planned your week, attended your lectures. Now, you need to tackle another first of University – the library. It’s time to collate all the notes of the day and expand upon them. Personally, this is something that I really struggled with during my time at medical school. Coming straight from high school, I quickly realised that I had never figured out a method that worked for me; past papers and marking schemes a thing of the past. There I was with all the information in the world at my fingertips, with not the first clue how to filter it, prioritise it or utilise it in my learning. I struggled with information overload, not knowing what the relevant aspects of the topic were and diving into the obscure details before I built a solid foundation of the basics.

Compared to postgraduates, who had already experienced and thrived in further education, I felt at a disadvantage. So I embarked on a journey of trial and error, and in my fourth year of medical school I am still trialling and erroring, but it’s all part of the process. Methods that have worked for you in the past might not now, and methods you hate may become useful in certain learning environments. So here is a fool-proof list of how to get the most out of your revision sessions and pros and cons of certain study methods.

A) To-do list

Write out a bulleted list of what you want to achieve in your session. Whether it’s finishing off lectures, starting an assignment or researching something you didn’t quite grasp in a tutorial. List them in order of priority. Be realistic with what you can manage in the time frame and ready, set, go.

B) Escalate – start with the basics and build upon them

Do not avoid the illustrated, brightly-coloured books for fear of looking juvenile. The use of these books is encouraged, even in your more senior years for revision and reconsolidation. The old, dusty bricks on the shelf may look more stereotypically academic, but they are a tough read. Complex and critical language is not the most accessible to young readers starting out in University; they resonate with a more niche, advanced audience so I would personally give them a wide berth until you need more specialist, focussed reading. Start with the “Introductions to …” and “The Basics and Fundamentals of …”. They will serve you far better.

C) Tidy desk, tidy mind

So you’ve found books that look reasonably understandable. What not to do is stack seven in your arms and bundle them back to your desk. Clutter has the same effect as multitasking and tends to overwhelm our brain. I try and stick to two on the same topic maximum and work my way through those before returning them and choosing the next. It helps keep you focused on what your current task is and allows you to have a stretch of your legs in between study topics.

D) Location, location, location

Noises, sights, temperature, people – everything can distract you when studying. So pick a spot that is suited to you; whether you like pin-drop silence or a bit of atmosphere, people around you or isolation – find where you’re most productive and set a routine.

E) Mandala method

This refers to repetition. Whether it be writing or typing, using either to continually put down information and when the page is full, deleting/recycling and starting again. Now, I understand the concept of this method in that you learn mostly by repetition; however, in a course that is so high volume, I personally feel that the information would start to get lost in the task itself and there is a chance of one slipping into autopilot and not fully processing what is being described.

F) Mind maps

Now, I have never liked mind maps. I agree they are a great tool for getting lots of information in one place; however, I feel they can be quite cluttered and disorganised, and I struggle to interpret them in a methodical way. So not a personal favourite but may work for some.

G) Flashcards

This is my personal go-to. Flashcards are similar to mind maps in that you can get a lot of information in one place, but the delivery itself is a lot quicker and in bite-sized pieces. Personally, I prefer digital to written for several reasons –

i.written uses a lot of paper/card and may not be the best choice environmentally or financially

ii.typing is more time efficient than writing and

iii.I am never off my phone. I know this contradicts my statement on separating phone and study time, however as I struggle to part with my apps using the method of digital flashcards (there’s several websites and apps you can download for free) I was able to trick my brain into thinking I was procrastinating when in reality I was not. Quizzing yourself while commuting is a fantastic way of being productive without having to carry a rainforest-worth of pages in your backpack.

H) The student becomes the teacher

Nearing exams this is a great tool to utilise. Sitting in your room go through each lecture and be the lecturer. Explain each slide and deliver it as you would to an audience. This highlights gaps in your knowledge brilliantly, as if you get to a slide you don’t understand, it prompts you to revisit your notes, re-watch the lecture (almost all lectures are recorded), consolidates your learning and also flags further questions you may want clarified.

I) Mic check, one, two

Now for those of you who can listen to their recorded voice without cringing, this one is for you. If you read about a concept that takes a while to get your head round, or if you need to ask someone more senior to explain something, voice memos can be a saving grace. Make a recording of yourself explaining the topic, in your own words, so the next time you come across the same struggle there is an explanation ready and waiting.

J) Broad concepts > fine details

And lastly, don’t get bogged down on the nitty-gritty. No-one will get mad at you if you don’t know what amino acid is symbolised by the letter Q (it’s glutamine for future reference), but they will get mad if you don’t know how many lobes each lung has (hint: it is not the same for both). So focus on the big picture, all the fine details come later with a lot more practice and experience.

And my last tip is to enjoy the process. Yes, it is difficult and demanding, but it also one of the most amazing, challenging, rewarding courses that we as young students are lucky enough to do. So don’t let the workload put you off; when you succeed at taking blood for the first time, or hear your first heart murmur, or hear a newborn cry, it makes all those late library nights worthwhile! Remember, if it was easy everyone would do it, and if it was impossible we would have no doctors.

© Eve Walker, 2020
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