Photo: Why Reviewing Your Notes is a Terrible Med School Study Strategy — and What You Should Do Instead

Why Reviewing Your Notes is a Terrible Med School Study Strategy — and What You Should Do Instead

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Three Reasons Med Students Shouldn’t Spend Time Re-Reading Material

When students are struggling in med school, one of the first questions I ask is, “how much time do you spend reviewing the material?”

When I ask this question, many of them assume that I’m going to tell them to do more. To work harder.  To read and re-read the material. But the truth is, review is a terrible way to learn. So whatever time you’re spending on review, it’s probably too much.

Before we get into why reviewing material is ineffective, let’s define what review is. Review is when the learner directly re-reads, “looks over,” or skims medical material they’ve already studied. Review is revisiting content with the information right in front of your face.

Now, if you spend a lot of time on review and you’re succeeding, more power to you. This blog post isn’t for you. But if you’re putting in the work and not seeing the results, read on.

Here are three reasons review typically doesn’t work at the medical school level:

1. Review is a passive way to study medicine.

The first problem is that review is passive. When you’re sitting hunched over your books or your laptop for 12 hours a day, it definitely feels like you’re putting in the effort. And you are. That dedication is commendable. But, unfortunately, you’re not putting in the right kind of effort.

You’ve probably heard the cliché “the mind is a muscle.” That analogy, while biologically inaccurate, has become so common for a reason. Just like your muscles need to experience activity and resistance to grow, real learning requires active energy and struggle. Forcing your mind to recall information — without having it in front of you — is a great way to make your studying more active. That’s why we recommend retrieval practice over review.

Med student examining brain, med school study strategy

2. Review is inefficient. And, in med school, time is in short supply.

Second, review is incredibly inefficient. Without the aforementioned struggle, simply reviewing your medical textbooks or lecture notes doesn’t help you identify your problem areas. So, you keep re-reading all of the material when your time would be better spent focusing on the topics or concepts you’re struggling with the most. And you don’t have time to waste when you’re in med school or studying for boards.  

3. Review creates “the trap of familiarity.”

When you were in undergrad, being familiar with the material might have been enough to land you good grades. But how does familiarity treat you as a medical student?

I know how it treats you. It allows you to narrow down to two or three answer options on your tests and say, “I’m sure it’s one of them, but I don’t know which one.” That’s because your knowledge only goes three feet deep and it needs to go five feet deep. In short, familiarity doesn’t cut it at this level. You need to have an in-depth understanding.

And here’s the biggest problem with review. It helps you get familiar with the material, and it’s easy to confuse familiarity with learning. That’s because recognition feels good. As we’re scanning and rescanning the material, we get rewarded. When we see something we’ve seen before, our brains say “yep! I recognize that! I know it!” And you do… when it’s right there in front of you. But that’s not how things work on test day when you have to recall the information without any prompts.

A Better Med School Study Strategy

To “train” for the test, you need to metaphorically sweat it out and force your brain to recall the information over and over to ensure optimal learning. Here again, that’s why we recommend retrieval practice as one of the best methods for studying medicine. 

We teach retrieval practice in our STATMed Study Skills Class, and we have a great video that shows you how to do it on your own.

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