15 Pieces of Advice to Ignore when Struggling in Med School

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Learning in Med School 101 – Video Series Part 3

In this video series, “Learning in Med School 101,” we break down some key concepts about learning medical school, including skills, strategies, and techniques we share with medical students (and those in related medical fields). 

If you’re struggling in med school – or a related field – it can seem like getting advice from successful doctors or med students is the way to go. If it worked for them, it’ll work for you, right? Well… maybe not. From the placating to the just plain patronizing, we dig into 15 pieces of bad advice you should ignore if you’re struggling in med school. (A quick caveat, if any of these strategies work for you, great, but this article may not be for you!) 

This advice includes gems like:

  • Study like me! 
  • Make sure you see the material 3 to 5 times
  • Condense your notes
  • Find the right study group
  • Let me give you some study tips!
  • Do more practice questions
  • Make a schedule
  • Study harder
  • Use your learning style
  • Pre-read lectures and rewatch lectures
  • Is this what you really want?
  • Use Anki, anki, anki
  • Be sure to review, review, review
  • Hit the gym!
  • Maintain a positive mindset

But, chances are, you have tried studying “harder” or reading more, mounds of flashcards, or dozens of other strategies that just aren’t working for you. But now is the time to ditch the bad advice and the “tips.” Understanding these issues with bad advice can be an essential step, to solving your problems with study methodology and performance in med school and on boards.

Interested in more med school study strategies? Check out the STATMed Study Skills Class.


Welcome to Learning in Med School 101, where I briefly talk about some key learning concepts relevant to any medical student. Some of these come from longer talks I’ve given elsewhere, and some are new. 

Today, I’m talking about how there can be a lot of bad advice given to struggling medical students. I’m gonna run through 15 examples of bad advice. This comes from my lecture on learning foundations, and sometimes references how we fix these issues in our STATMed study skills class. But regardless, I think foundationally speaking, it’s helpful to know, what someone like me, a learning specialist with almost 20 years of experience working with and helping struggling medical students and physicians and those in related fields, thinks qualifies as bad or frustrating advice. 

When we struggle, we’ll often go to one of our peers who are doing really well and we’ll ask her like, “Hey, what are you doing?” And she might be like, “Yeah, study like me!” But again, what works for her might not work for you. And they’re not experts in the way that the reading brain works or in teaching or in pedagogy or in the way that the reading brain processes the text, text based information. But they might try to just graft what works for them onto you, not factoring in the fact that you might be wired differently, you know? There’s all kinds of like old advice rattling around out there like “Make sure you see the material three to five times. If you can see it five times before the test, you’re gonna do well.” And you’re really struggling to see it two times or four times. And you’re like, “Well, I’m struggling. They said, see it five times, I saw it three times, therefore the fault is on me for not seeing it more times.” And then you try to see it more times whatever “see” means. “See” can largely be a very passive activity, reviewing, looking over, and then it becomes like you’re just checking these boxes. That’s not really giving you cognitive control of the learning. It just becomes this race. And again, I think the advice is often not great. 

Again, if any of these pieces of advice, I’m gonna throw up here, work for someone, that is great, wonderful. The problem is every single example I’m gonna throw up here, I have heard from multiple people over the last 10 or 15 years, saying this was told to me and it didn’t work and it really frustrated me, or it really hurt me. Or I, I spent all this time chasing it, you know? You know, the idea of like the myth of perfectly condensed notes. 

Again, somebody might do this and it works well for them maybe the person that makes them, and it works for them. The act of creating and making that’s good for their, their process. Maybe somebody else you know, just take somebody’s condensed notes and they can just read them three to five times and it works for them. Well, great for them but that might just be how their brain works. But so many people come to me saying, “If I can just figure out how to condense these notes then I’ll unlock my ability.” 

And I don’t really believe in that. If it works, great, but that’s not a skill that we overall teach because I think it’s all this illusion of productivity, you make the thing but then what are you doing with the thing? Sometimes we see, you know, find the right study group. Like, look, at the end of the day, we’re like we go through this whole class, and I’m like good luck to you all, and by the way, I hope you find the right study group. 

Some people might have really thrived in other environments with study groups. Some people might thrive in med school with study groups. But the idea that your outcome and your fate hinges on finding the right study group is nauseating. Like, no, you don’t, I mean, if you find a study group that’s cool, that’s fine. But everything that we teach in this class should make you an autonomous learner. If you want to and work within a group, and it works for you in a healthy, productive, efficient way great. But I don’t believe that you need to find the right study group to be successful, okay? But I know a lot of times people are sort of told to find the right study group, and then it’s this idea of like the universe is gonna dictate your fate by finding the right study group or not, it’s not the case. 

Let me give you some tips. People call me all the time asking for some tips. Just gimme some study tips. I cannot give study tips, I mean, I can, but like at I believe in wholesale end to end systems, study systems, time management systems, test taking systems. And then you need to install those in the learner, step by step by step by step. Tips are just enough to frustrate at this level, okay? And again, if tips are gonna work for somebody again, great. But that’s not what, that’s not the business we’re in, and I think that the stakes are too high at this level in med school to say like, “Just gimme the tips and hopefully that’s gonna be enough to get me where I need to be.” 

So here we have maybe somebody come in and she represents more of a learning specialist, a resource counselor. Some of them are great, some of them are not so great, some of them are terrible, it runs a spectrum like in any field, right? A lot of bad advice out there can be represented here. Like, do more practice questions. Like, some people can learn from practice questions, some people can’t full stop, okay? And I’m gonna talk later in these units about the bottom up learners versus the top down learners, low structure builders, high structure builders. This sort of explains why some people can learn from practice questions and some can’t. But at the end of the day what we need to understand is not everyone can learn from practice questions, okay? Maybe where the practice questions fit on your continuum of where you are learning matters more for you than for your peer, okay? But the idea of like everybody just being able to plug into practice questions and learn from practice questions is a major fallacy. You know, make a schedule. 

A lot of resource people will use scheduling as like a punishment tool. Like, “Did you make a schedule?” “No, I didn’t make a schedule.” Well, you’re struggling you didn’t make a schedule, but you’re saying, “Well, yeah, I make a schedule, but then I fall off the schedule and I feel bad and I spend lots time making the schedule but I’m not getting any corrective behaviors on it and all this stuff.” I think that making schedules is actually a very important thing for med students to do, not for everybody, but we don’t know who is gonna benefit from and who’s not. Most people do not wanna make a schedule. But it’s gotta be something that you’re using as a tool with feedback mechanisms built in to help you get a sense of where you’re being efficient and where you’re not. So, scheduling can be a good thing but I think it’s often taught wrong and used wrong. And we’re not taught, “how to build and profit from schedules” as professional students because we don’t value these things. But we can do this, we can do this and we’re going to do this in the class. You know, study harder, what does that mean? What does that mean? “Are you studying hard enough?” Am I studying hard enough? I need to study harder. I don’t… Again, without breaking down what this amorphous term of study means, I don’t know how we’re supposed to get into this. We’re gonna demystify all this. We’re gonna take this concept of study and break it apart and build in all these sub-steps along the way that are flexible and there’s various ways to go about it. And again, try to understand what this gets into, but again, I think oftentimes it’s leveled as an accusation of you’re struggling. We think you’re smart, maybe you’re not smart enough, maybe you’re not studying hard enough. That’s like telling the sprinter to run faster or the painter to paint better. It’s not useful advice, and I’m not interested in useless advice. Oh, God! Use your learning style. I’m a kinesthetic learner, I don’t like learning auditorily, I need to be a visual learner. All this stuff, we’ve all been, we’ve all been told about this, we all know about this. 

My daughter who’s in high school knows about these things. It’s a bad paradigm. The research doesn’t support it. We’ve all been sort of sold this whole thing. And, and really, if anything what we don’t wanna do is only operate in a single modality. We want to operate in multiple modalities. I wanna bring in visual. I wanna bring in kinesthetic. I wanna bring in auditory. I wanna diversify and make my learning diversified as I’m working through it. And all the STATMed skills are gonna get into this. But let’s just say I do prefer visual learning. Well, that might be the easiest way for me to learn. And so if I only learn in a, through a visual modality that might make things too easy. It’s like I’m at the gym and I’m working out a little bit. I’m like, “Ooh, I’m starting to sweat, I better stop doing these reps, so, my biceps don’t get too tired.” So I’ve just stopped like the actual act of building the bicep, right? You gotta be careful with some of those analogies, learning and physical exercise. But that, it does hold up, we actually want to engage in what are called desirable difficulties and get into sort of different aspects of exertion and effort and whatnot. 

And learning styles are just, it’s just not something we wanna build in sort of foundation on, okay? And then, you know, pre-read or pre-watch lecture. Many people have been given this advice. They’ve tried it, they don’t really get any benefit from it. They’re like, “What am I supposed to do?” And they feel guilty for not doing this thing that’s not giving them benefit, and it becomes an ugly dynamic. I think there is absolutely extreme value to be found in doing something prior to reading or prior to watching lecture. But that has to have a very specific structure and goal and bandwidth. And we’re gonna get into that. It’s one of the key skills we teach, we call it frameworking. But just pre-reading or pre-watching or rewatching videos. No, we we’re not really gonna, we’re not obviously going down that road, all right? But again, that’s a lot of advice that’s been given to people. It’s something you can tell people to do, something they can spend their time doing but then not get benefit from. 

And then this guy is supposed to represent, I guess like, a preceptor, a dean, whatever, somebody who’s advising you guys, you know is like, “review, review, review,” in other words like, see this stuff again, see it again, see it again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Review’s almost a bad word to me. Like review often ends up meaning like looking over stuff passively and seeing it in a passive manner. And it gives you a false sense of familiarity. And I just think it’s a, it’s a dangerous thing, we’re gonna sort of try to blow that concept up here in the next few days and really get into what we should be orienting ourselves toward, and how we should be spending our time. You know, the advice of hit the gym, you know, do ANKI, figure out if this is what you really want, oh God!

So, hit the gym, of course. Exercise is a good thing, but if you, what I, what I’ve heard a lot over the years is like, people will say, go to the gym, but I don’t have time to go to the gym ’cause I’m studying every minute of every day. Well, that gets into the way we’re studying, the way we’re planning, the way we’re tracking, okay? So, if we fix all the stuff on the study side and the planning side that will give you time to go to the gym. But the idea that like, you have to go to the gym to then fix the other things which is often what’s being told to you is not great. The idea of ANKI, ANKI is you know, it’s like a software that automates sort of note cards, detail based skill drill type stuff. There are some good things that ANKI does and ANKI does work with a very specific set of the med student population. But like learning with practice questions, it’s not for everyone. And what I’ve seen is that people are trying to jam ANKI either onto other people or people or students who are struggling, see other students using ANKI and they want to use it but they’re not wired for it. And I’m gonna get into this specifically later in this unit, “Why ANKI is not for everyone?” 

And then of course, the one of the more painful things people have heard over the years is like you’re in the middle of the semester, you are struggling, you’re just trying to keep your head above water. And they’re like, “Is this really what you want? You need to really figure that out.” It’s like this passive aggressive way of saying like, you know, if you’re struggling, you know, maybe you’ve gotten to the wrong place and that’s a really painful thing to hear. You know. And then also, like of course you all, maintain a positive mindset. Like the reason you’re struggling is you’re not positive enough. And again, that’s a, that’s a tough pill to swallow. Like, I am not going to, I’m not a cheerleader. 

We’re not gonna be telling you like, I mean, I’m not gonna be like, believe in yourself. Like, ’cause that’s not what I would want to hear, if I were struggling or looking for better ways to unlock my ability. I want methodology. I want methodology, I want tools that I can then use to the best of my ability. So that I can master the individual tools and that’ll unlock overall performance. And then I can see what I can do. And that’s kind of where then I’ll feel more positive. 

So, that’s another look at 15 examples of the kinds of bad advice I’ve seen given to struggling medical students and students in related fields like veterinarians, RNDs and PAs. I hope this helps you understand, you’re not alone, if you’re struggling. Understanding these issues with bad advice can be an important step, to solving your issues with study methodology and performance in med school and on boards. Thanks for watching.