How to Study Effectively and Efficiently Without Losing Your Mind

Career, Mental Health ,

I have never been the kind of person who could read part of a textbook once and remember it. I was always the one who returned a book with hundreds of highlights, notes in the margins, and a flashcard or two holding its place in an important chapter. I’m not sure if this was just a natural state of being for me (low reading comprehension perhaps), if it was because I went to a competitive prep high school and therefore not studying was out of the question to get good grades, or if it was because I grew up with a mother who is a special education tutor and tutored in our house. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. Either way, studying for me has always been a meticulous process. Its rhythm calmed me before a test, its process allowed me to manage time expediently and (perhaps falsely) believe that academics was a piece of cake.

Studying is all about finding a rhythm and studying frequently in small chunks so it isn't overwhelming.
Studying is all about finding a rhythm and studying frequently in small chunks so it isn’t overwhelming.

I’ve learned along the way that studying does not come easily to everyone, however, and moreover its process was never one that was taught explicitly to most people. I’ve met numerous people who are going into a graduate or professional degree programs who have never had to study in their life and suddenly are thrown into entirely new situations with far too much knowledge to absorb and well…are kind of freaking out. So here it is- the secrets to studying effectively and efficiently for those brilliant enough to never have to study before.


Before you start

Figure out how you learn best and focus on those methods of studying.- The best way to determine the way you learn best is by paying attention to when information “sticks” best in your brain. When a teacher is at the board talking to you, do you feel like you pick up the most in what he/she is saying just by hearing it (more aural learning), or do you feel you need them to write on the board or provide you with a video to best receive it (visual learning)? Do you find being in class difficult because the only way you learn is through physically “handling” the information by way of experiencing a real-life situation with the material or writing notes yourself (tactile learning)? Most of us learn through multiple modalities, but we often have a primary way of learning that allows us to retain the most.

o Are you a visual learner? Then make sure you focus on picking up material during class in visual ways. Download powerpoints from your teachers before class (if you can) and write notes in the “notes” section of each slide so you can spend most of the time looking at and picking up visual cues from your teacher themselves. Create study guides (detailed information about doing this below) and re-read them over and over and over again. Use highlighters to draw your eyes to the most important pieces of information. Use flashcards to continue seeing information in visual ways and reinforcing it.

o Are you an aural learner? Ask the teacher for permission to tape the lectures. (Most teachers will and some even have recorded lectures on the school website now.) While you’re driving, on the bus, about to go to bed…anytime you have a moment to listen to the lecture again, do. This will be how you retain information best. There are a number of apps on the iPad and for the Mac (and I’m sure the PC too) that will allow you to record lectures while taking notes, which may be extremely helpful. One example is Audio Note, which you can find on the iTunes store here.

o Are you a tactile learner? Don’t fear. Just because you learn through experience and tactile memory doesn’t mean you are out of luck. However, you are at a slight disadvantage given that most teachers do not teach to your style of learning. I am a tactile and a visual learner and the best way I’ve found to retain information is type or hand-write extensive notes….and then re-type and re-write them in different ways. Additionally, I try to find ways of experiencing the information in other ways such as shadowing at a place I might encounter the use of that information or learning details about the information that is more interesting to me.

Organize, organize, organize. Only a couple months ago, I was celebrating the end of studying for genetic counseling boards. It was well worth the celebration, as I had begun studying in January (8 months before the exam) and had spent 10-20 hours a week (more than that as I got closer to the big day) preparing. The real studying didn’t actually take place, though, until the beginning of April. It took me three whole months of organizing all the material I might need into one place that I could reference and study easily. I had gone through one entire textbook, 30 lectures, numerous notes and class handouts and medical recommendation articles and condensed it into two large study guides, a few large tables, and a small binder for important articles to reference. Organizing may not be as important for smaller tests, but when the material being covered is from numerous sources, notes and handouts and lectures, it is a necessary part of making studying efficient and effective.

Studies show that studying in multiple locations reinforces concepts better.
Studies show that studying in multiple locations reinforces concepts better.

Plan it out. So you’ve organized the material. Your next step is to plan on how you’re going to get through it. You can use a datasheet like in Microsoft Excel or write it into your planner or your calendar. Whatever you feel is easiest to use to manage your time and information retention is what you should do. Make sure to break it into manageable and reasonable chunks for the time period you are allotting and spread it out. Give yourself a few days before the exam to go over the material you haven’t retained as well (This will largely be determined by your use of flashcards and quizzes. See below for more information).

Reinforce the important stuff, but know the other stuff too. As good as I am at test-taking, I honestly despise tests because they are never a true indicator of how well or not well I know material. Often, I find that test makers focus on things that may not be that important (like details you would just reference books for in your own job, for example) or they emphasize one area too much and others too little or not at all. But we can’t control that, so there is no real point in complaining now. The point is, you don’t know what the people making the test will think is important…so, really, you should know it all at a shallow level and know the stuff that is cited multiple times by your teacher or sources at a more in-depth level. Therefore, when you are planning out when to study material, make sure you allot more time to these areas and less (but still some) time to the more minor minutiae.

Let friends and family (and pets :-)) help you with your studying.
Let friends and family (and pets :-)) help you with your studying.

Start studying WAY before the test. As you’ve probably noted, in order to complete any of the above items, you need to not be studying the night before a test or even two nights before a test. Studying for true retention and not memorization requires little chunks of reinforcement over a longer period of time. When you are studying for your career especially, retention is vitally important to your future (and possibly your patients’ or other clients’ as well).

Re-synthesize Information

Tables: I don’t find enough people using tables to study. Here is a tip: Don’t overlook the amazing capability tables have of organizing huge amounts of information in consistent ways into easily visually accessible means. With the use of a header row or column, you can organize just about anything and easily take this information and make them into flashcards or just use it as a primary study guide as long as the information is all similar/comparable. For an example, I made a very large table of over 300 genetic conditions while studying for genetic counseling boards with columns for gene involved, symptoms of the condition, age of onset, differential diagnoses, testing procedures to diagnose it, etc.

Study guides: Everyone has a different idea of what a study guide is, I’ve found. A study guide to some may be just a bunch of class handouts and notes compiled together. For me, a study guide is a very thorough re-organization of information from numerous sources into one word document. Often, I will include pictures and figures from the text books or handouts or lectures in the location I am referencing that topic. I try to compile all information about one topic into one space in the study guide so that topic isn’t repeated in some other area. Honestly, I learn much more out of making the study guide than I do studying it. The numbers or other details are the things that often go onto flashcards, but the big ideas are covered in my brain just by making the guide. At the end of making the study guide, I have all the information I will need to review for the test in one place and written in my own words. Try it sometime! I guarantee the time you spend on it will be more than worth it. If you have a photographic memory (or close to it) or are a visual and/or tactile learner, this is especially helpful, as recall is as simple as remembering where the piece of information was on the page in your study guide and the other information around it will also come into focus with it.

Memory Triggers: My grandfather was always repeating medical mnemonics to me as I grew up, since he went through med school for a few years. It is the means many people use to remind themselves of large amounts of information that has a pattern or organization to it and that order is significant. For instance, to remember the cranial nerves, it is easier to remember Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel Vintage Green Velvet, Simply Heaven (well, that’s one clean version at least) than to remember Olfactory, Optic, Oculomotor, Trochlear, Trigeminal, Abducens, Facial, Vestibulocochlear, Glossopharyngeal, Vagus, Accessory, and Hypoglossal in that order. Personally, I don’t find mnemonics or other memory triggers to be helpful unless I or someone close to me invent them and they need to have something visual I can imagine or it just won’t “stick.” It doesn’t have to make sense; it just needs to trigger your memory. The more outlandish and crazy the better. 🙂 Songs are good too!

Study groups can be helpful if they are organized effectively!
Study groups can be helpful if they are organized effectively!

Study groups: I am not a huge fan of study groups, but I know many people who are. It all depends on if you are the kind of person who learns best on your own or with a group of people working together. The key benefit of study groups is that each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and if well constructed, these complement the others’ in the group. Notice the key phrase “well-constructed.” If everyone in the group generally tends to be disorganized, not punctual, and all are confused about the same material, I doubt you will be very effective. The other important thing about study groups is that you can’t expect all your studying to happen in the group. It is more effective to come to a study group with specific questions about topics you’ve already reviewed to bring up as discussion points. The easiest way to make sure this is accomplished is to make a schedule with homework for everyone every time you meet and a presenter of material and discussion included.

Take advantage of your friends and family (if they’re okay with that). Though I have never been the type to work in larger groups, I do work well being quizzed by or explaining information to someone else as a means of studying. This is especially helpful when you are having trouble understanding a specific concept. The person doesn’t even need to know what you’re talking about; just trying to explain a concept in layman’s terms often clarifies details or reinforces your need for understanding in a specific area. Having someone ask you questions about your study guide or flashcards is also immensely helpful in figuring out what you know and what you don’t.

Reinforce materials in other modalities. I discussed above how to determine what your learning style is. Often, if something is difficult to understand or remember in our primary modality, it is because we need our other senses to help out. If you can find pictures or figures about the topic you are not understanding or finding new sources that might explain the concept better, this not only provides you with new information, it also provides a different way of viewing that information from a new perspective. Pictures especially (if the material is something where pictures would be applicable) are very easy ways of recall. When I was memorizing genetic conditions, for instance, I would find pictures and stories online of people with these conditions because remembering their story and their image would remind me all about the rest of that condition too.

Flashcards really are your friends!
Flashcards really are your friends!

Flashcards are your friends. I don’t know that I could have passed my boards without the use of flashcards. They are so immensely helpful in breaking down material into manageable chunks and also easily defining what you know and what you don’t and separating the two in physical space. I highly highly recommend using electronic flashcards if you are the type of person who is always on their smartphone or iPad. They don’t waste paper, they don’t cramp your hands up, and they are available whenever you have a spare moment to study (waiting for a friend to meet you at the coffee shop, while you’re eating breakfast, while you’re on the toilet, etc). I have been using (now for years now and it has changed my studying life. When you make flashcards, take into consideration whether the test will be a recall-based exam (fill-in-the-blank) or recognition-based (multiple choice). Though it is helpful to make flashcards that are reversible (those you can study in either direction) and study them in both directions, it’s best to spend the most amount of time studying in the way the material will be presented to you on the test. For example, when I was studying for boards, I put a description of a genetic condition on one side and the condition name on the other. Since I knew the boards would mainly be recognition-based, I focused mainly on recognizing the description and not defining the condition (seeing the description and trying to remember the name of it, not seeing the name and remembering the features of the condition).

Study better/Test better

Know what you know and reinforce what you don’t. When I first make flashcards, I review them in totality once. Then, I quiz myself a few hours or days later and remove the ones I know. As I keep studying, I remove those I feel comfortable with. I don’t go back to the ones I’ve removed until the day before the test. I spend the vast majority of my time looking at the things I don’t know, not wasting time looking at the stuff I do. Flashcards and highlighting make this a much simpler and efficient task.

Study EVERYWHERE. Studies have shown that retention and recall of material is both improved when studying occurs many times over a long period of time and also performed in many places (Read more here). This is because we have context-dependent memory and viewing the same information in multiple locations helps to reinforce this knowledge in your brain in different ways. Studies have also shown that studying in an environment that is different, but also similar in some ways to the testing area (such as noise level), will improve recall and effectiveness of studying as well (Read more here). Thus, in order to get the most out of studying, study in small chunks frequently in different locations that are quiet. Not too hard, right? 🙂

Your brain and body need a break. Stretching is good for both!
Your brain and body need a break. Stretching is good for both!

Give yourself a break. Studying regularly is difficult; there is no doubt about it! It requires being motivated, organized, and focused. But if you do all of the above and provide yourself a good environment for it, you will be far less rushed to learn/memorize, more capable of retention, and you will even find that it takes less time and less focus in totality than your all-nighter ever did. Take that extra time to take a break and give your brain a rest: Exercise. Watch a movie. Hang out with friends. And make sure to sleep! Give your brain and your body time to refuel for the challenges ahead of you. You will feel even more willing to study with some time between anyway.

Avoid all-nighters. In my opinion, this is the most important tip. I know I’m a little weird, but I didn’t have one all-nighter all through undergrad or grad school (or boards). I had a single all-nighter during high-school at a lock-in (not for studying). Why? Because my brain needs sleep to even partially function. And so does yours…even if you don’t think it does. Not only does lack of sleep or restricted sleep over time lead to “decreased cognitive function, emotional lability, increased blood sugars, weight gain, increased risk of substance abuse, and postpartum depression,” despite popular belief, it also can’t be made up for. “Recent studies in humans have shown that five days with only four hours of sleep/night result in cumulative deficits in vigilance and cognition, and these deficits do not fully recover after one night of sleep, even if 10 hours in bed are allowed” (Read more here). So on top of not being prepared because of waiting until the last minute to study and being stressed because of that, your brain is functioning even more poorly than if you had slept and not studied. And the more you do this, the worse your brain is functioning on a day-to-day basis too. I highly recommend adopting a new rule of 7-8 hours of sleep the night before an exam (or, ya know…any day of the year) whether you want to or not.

Super foods fuel your brain and body- you'll need it for those study sessions!
Super foods fuel your brain and body- you’ll need it for those study sessions!

Feed your body (and brain) well. Did you know the majority of the food that goes into our body is transformed into energy to process our brain? Therefore, feeding your body is directly correlated to feeding your brain, and feeding it junk food is not going to allow it to run optimally. While you’re taking the time to feed your mind, exercise, take mental breaks, and sleep, give your body and brain the extra nutrients and boost it needs with some healthy food such as superfoods blueberries, wild salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados, whole grains, beans, teas (especially green), and dark chocolate (I think most of us can agree to this one :-)).

It is easy to get swept into the stress of studying and leave friends, family, hobbies, and your own health by the wayside. It is difficult, but definitely possible to find a balance. At least try- for your brain’s sake at least. 🙂

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One thought on “How to Study Effectively and Efficiently Without Losing Your Mind

  1. i love this!!! Of course you know this is what I am all about as far as success in studying. The only thing I will add is in the last years I have had students create study sheets instead of flashcards.On one side is the question and on the other side is the answer. It is folded down the middle, so they can quiz themselves besides having someone else quiz them.We try to make it that you can study from both sides.So, for instance if you have a vocabulary word on one side ,the other side has the definition without the word.This way you can give the definition, but then study the other way seeing the definition but giving the correct word.This way you are testing your recall in two ways. I began this because people loose their flashcards and also sometimes you don’t know the way you will be tested. I hope this is understandable. I am a visual learner ,so I would rather draw this …Keep up the great blog!!!Suggestions and experience help others!!

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