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Learning to Learn Medicine

Hania Ahmer

Year 3 student, Shifa College of Medicine

Number of words 947

Read time: 7 minutes

Online on: Aug 3, 2020

After getting admission in a medical school, many students never feel the need to develop new methods of learning and studying as they have full confidence in their respective methods of studying. Many students believe that as their study methods were good enough to  ensure their admission in a medical school, so they could, therefore, get them through medical school. However, the volume of material, the necessity to retain this material, and the building of knowledge requires stronger learning methods.

If you have a hard time in assimilating diseases such as Osler-Weber-Rendu Disease or even its alternative name: Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia, you’re in for a treat. This blog is aimed at providing you with some techniques to help you study effectively. Research has shown that the study techniques students think are the most intuitive are often not the most effective.

I will begin by talking about the three most popular revision techniques used by students who are not very effective according to the literature:

  1. Rereading
  2. Highlighting
  3. Summarizing with the book open

The studies mentioning these methods are referenced at the end of this blog.


According to the research done by John Dunlosky, rereading has been regarded as having low utility. Although rereading is relatively economical concerning time demands, when compared with some other learning techniques, rereading is typically much less effective. Another paper quoted: “A wealth of research has shown that passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit of learning. However, it remains students’ number one choice by a large margin.”


I will again quote John Dunlosky: “Highlighting also has been regarded as having low utility. In most situations, highlighting does little to boost performance. It may help when students have the knowledge needed to highlight more effectively but it may hurt performance on higher-level tasks that require inference making. Future research should be aimed at teaching students how to highlight effectively, given that students are likely to continue to use this popular technique despite its relative ineffectiveness.” Using colorful highlighters does seem productive but evidence suggests that we could be using more efficient ways.

Summarizing with the book open

Again, a really popular technique. The evidence behind is somewhat equivocal since it depends upon the quality of notes between students and that makes it quite hard to conduct a proper scientific study about it. Nevertheless, according to research, this technique will require extensive training of students and teachers, making this method less feasible and it still falls in the middle of the pack when compared to other techniques.

Let’s now flip the page over to the more efficient study method: Active recall/practice testing

It is by far the most efficient study technique because the very act of retrieving information strengthens the neuronal connections in the brain.

A lot of students have this notion that learning is merely the process of putting information into the brain and the only purpose of getting that information out of the brain is to ‘ace that exam’. However, this cannot be further from the truth.

An interesting study was done in 2011 split students into four groups: the first group was supposed to study the material once, the second group was supposed to reread the material 4 times, the third group read the text once and then made a concept map and the fourth group read the material and tried to actively recall as much as they can. They were then tested on a verbatim test and an inferential test. However, before doing any of this they asked for students’ perceptions regarding the effectiveness of these methods. The results are shown below.

This shows that Active recall is the least popular, yet the most effective learning tool.

There are different ways by which one can incorporate active recall in their learning such as:

  • Flashcards: Various applications such as Anki, Quizlet are available to incorporate active recall strategy coupled with spaced repetition. This helps to spread out the revision, allowing us to review topics ideally by active recall at particular intervals. This interrupts the forgetting curve, helping the fact stick in memory for longer.
  • Closed book notes: After reading a chapter, one should try to summarize or make a concept map from the material studied with the book closed questions instead of notes- the Cornell note-taking system: Another way to incorporate active recall is to write or ask oneself questions instead of writing statements to be remembered.

Furthermore, students should be able to scope their subjects so that they can enlist the topics they need to know. This will help them achieve a bird’s eye view of the subject at hand, enabling them to summarize the concepts in a better way.

As doctors in training, durable learning is extremely important so that we can appropriately diagnose and treat patients. These study techniques may prove to be helpful in the long-term learning and retaining of concepts so that students can achieve academic success and accomplishment in their professional careers.

References for further reading:

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58.

Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt. Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science 11 Feb 2011: Vol. 331, Issue 6018, pp. 772- 775

Karpicke JD, Bauernschmidt A. Spaced retrieval: absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2011;37(5):1250-1257. doi:10.1037/a0023436

Written by: Hania Ahmer

Word count: 902 words


  1. Fahad Azam says:

    Glad to read such a beautiful and useful blog by a medical student. Hopefully this will be very useful for other students.

  2. Muhammad Asim says:

    It’s very effective blog and really amazing .