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For Today’s Med Students, Smart Study Habits Matter More than Ever

04/15/19 Robert S. Porter, MD, Editor-in-Chief, The Merck Manuals

Medical school is a shared experience that bonds physicians of all ages. Some things have remained the same from way before my student days in the late ‘70s all the way to the present—the massive volume of information to be absorbed in way too short a time, the realization that for the first time, your failure to learn could harm someone besides yourself. But the differences are profound, particularly in regard to the learning resources available. In my day (isn’t someone who says “in my day” by definition out of touch?), as much as we had to learn, resources were very straightforward and consisted entirely of a very small number of books. On Surgery, the only question was whether you’d use Sabiston or Schwartz. On Medicine, it was either Harrison’s or Cecil’s (though we all also used the Merck Manual). There was no such thing as video, and because the internet hadn’t even been imagined, “doing a search” meant wandering the shelves of the library or the one medical bookstore in town, or diving into the tiny print of the dreaded Index Medicus (Wikipedia link added for you young’uns—think of a print version of Pub Med in dozens of volumes of which the one you needed was always being used by somebody else).

Learning Resources

Today, students and practitioners can call up a near-infinite number of resources not just from their library but from their own bed or the patient’s bedside—many of the resources being of types my fellow students and I never even imagined in 1976, including video and audio recordings, interactive 3D anatomy models, quizzes, and case studies. We can now hear lectures on any topic by eminent professors whenever and wherever we want. We can watch the proper technique for a medical procedure right before we do one—all on portable devices everyone has in their pocket.

To get a sense of what students today are actually doing, a team from The Manuals attended the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) meeting  last month to speak informally to medical and pre-medical students. We also conducted a brief survey of 161 students regarding their study habits and learning styles.

We found that less than one quarter (23%) of students felt their primary learning style involved using written text. More than half (55%) categorized themselves as primarily visual learners, and most used a variety of resources and material to supplement textbooks and classroom lectures, including

  • 52% online quizzes
  • 23% virtual labs and 3D modeling
  • 17% clinical case studies
  • 16% mobile apps
  • 9% podcasts 

At The Manuals, we find this encouraging validation of our commitment to continuously expanding our library of multimedia resources, from videos and cases to quizzes and podcasts.

Study Locations

Given the portability of current resources, it’s perhaps not surprising that students study in a wide range of locations.

Traditional spots have not vanished entirely.

“My favorite place to study is in the library. I live really close so it’s easily accessible,” said a first-year student at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “Personally, I like to look for places with open spaces, windows, natural lighting. It makes me feel better and in a nicer mood while I’m studying. Maybe on the weekends I’ll go to a coffee shop.”

But students study anywhere and everywhere.

  • 58% study at restaurants and coffee shops
  • 45% study in bed before going to sleep or after waking up
  • 31% study during their commute
  • 19% study in front of the TV

In fact, nearly three quarters of students (73 percent) consider themselves effective multi-taskers.

The upside of this information is that it confirms The Manuals move to make our website much more mobile-friendly and also make all of our content available on a native app—thus not even needing an internet connection. The downside is the concern that distracted learning (in front of the TV? Really?) is not effective learning. Perhaps not needing a library and a 5-kg textbook is not always an advantage.

Study Priorities

Surveyed students felt the 2 biggest barriers to success studying for the boards were

  • Managing time effectively (41%)
  • Information overload (38%)

And the time-management challenge is probably due mainly to the information overload.

Now, there’s really no solid remedy for the amount of information. One has to learn a great deal to become a physician and there are only so many hours in a day. So successful med students find ways to be more strategic about their studies.

“Since I started medical school, my study habits have changed tremendously,” said a fourth-year student at Saint James School of Medicine. “In your first year, there’s a lot of information thrown at you at the same time, and you feel like you need to learn it all. Over time, I’ve learned tactics to focus on high-priority subjects in more efficient ways, as opposed to trying to cover everything.”

However, only 20% of students surveyed classified themselves as “prioritizers” of their study habits, although another 42% considered themselves “planners,” which likely indicates a similar attempt at organization. Disturbingly, 36% identified themselves as “procrastinators.”

The procrastinators, especially those who end up having to cram their make-up study time into less conducive environments (eg, restaurants, in front of the TV) may find success elusive no matter what quality of resource they rely on.

But, on the whole, we at The Manuals will continue our century-long efforts to provide the most structured, clear and concise information for students and practitioners, now with all the learning enhancements expected by modern learners. We’ve even added a chapter on “How to Study in Medical School.”

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