Effective Study at the Geisel School of Medicine

Learning extremely complex material takes time; very few people have photographic memories. This kind of higher-level learning requires the intentional use of strategies, as well as rote memory. In fact, integrated knowledge of concepts, processes, and details are essential. Without sustained effort and carefully considered techniques, your study is not likely to be very efficient, nor are you likely to learn as much. The good news is that almost everyone can learn to study smarter.

A. Five basic components of effective study

1) When determining the techniques and strategies you'll use, you may want to include different modes of learning. Knowledge structures within the mind (schema) seem to incorporate information better if you combine more than one of the following:

  • Hearing (listening to a lecture or a tutor's explanation; reading also)
  • Seeing (inspecting a map, diagram, slide, flow chart, or graph; also reading)
  • Speaking (explaining material or questioning out-loud)
  • Touching (locating reference points during dissection, feeling for texture or configuration,)
  • Moving (drawing, writing, building, dissecting, diagramming)
  • Smelling (noticing the odor of chemicals or secretions)

These various modes help your brain to understand things in different ways, and to store the information in different ways too. A combined approach can also help you remember more thoroughly through cross-referencing the various stored cues.

2) Being active and purposeful helps you maintain ATTENTION. If your mind and nervous system aren't aroused and alert, your learning will be sluggish (or non-existent). Learning takes energy!

The more active you are—the more you DO with the information—the better your attention will be, and more you're going to learn. For example, reading is necessary, but just reading something over more than once probably won't do the trick. It's too passive. Mix it up. Try some of these approaches: reading a section to answer specific questions, re-explaining a concept (out-loud), diagramming a process, making a chart, creating an outline, presenting information to a study group or partner, mapping a lecture, making up questions, or having a study partner quiz you.

Remember: Expressing something (through speaking, writing, drawing, building) is more active than receiving something (through listening, seeing etc.) Generally we move from receptive to expressive in the learning process. Receiving is almost never enough.

3) Working with the same material several times absolutely increases the likelihood it will be incorporated into your schema (and therefore remembered). Once is not enough.

Try to encounter important new material more than once within the first 24 hours. You'll definitely forget less! A good approach is preview briefly a little ahead of time, attend carefully (while listening to a lecture or reading an assignment), and review the same day. Sometimes everything won't fit into one day, but try to have multiple encounters within the week at the very least. You'll have done yourself a big favor when the time comes to prepare for an exam. It will feel more like review than starting over!

4) Focus on the structure of material you're trying to learn. If you can see how the lecture (or the chapter) is organized, that will help you build more complete and solid schema. You should be able to explicitly see the main topic or idea, the subtopics, the details that support each subtopic, and often another layer of detail that supports both the larger details and the subtopics. And don't forget: the relationships among all the categories are extremely important.

Sometimes you have to reorganize material to create a structure that's more obvious, or that makes more sense to you. Creating a written depiction of that structure—through a map or outline—may help you see the relationships better and remember them more clearly.

5) Last but not least: to remember, you have to practice remembering! To do well on tests, that's one of the most important strategies. Understand first (for sure), but then RECALL, RECALL, RECALL. Periodic retrieval of information from your mind increases learning tremendously.

B. Mnemonics

Material that is difficult to remember can be organized by finding the key words in each point, noting the first letter, and arranging the letters into a sense or nonsense word (the sillier, the better). First letters can also be turned into a sentence.

A non-science example:

Why did the U.S. enter World War I? (mnemonic answer: SPRENCZ)

S ubmarines, Germans lifted restrictions on use of
P ropaganda, British control of
R ussians overthrew the tsar
E conomic ties of U.S. with Britain and France
N eutrality, German violations of U.S.
C ultural ties with Britain
Z immerman telegram

Or: Surely penguins repeatedly evade nocturnal critters by zigzagging. (Yes, silly is good.)

Note: in the examples, the student has devised a mnemonic based on key words. If you have a good understanding of each point, you ought to be able to write a complete essay from either mnemonic.

If you need to memorize a long list of items such as the states in the union or bones in the body, learn in small "chunks." You can always depend on the alphabet if no other structure seems to present itself. Break down a list, rearrange the items, and master the new shorter lists. In the example of learning the states in the union, it is easier to remember that there are four states whose names begin with A, no Bs, one D, etc. Notice how many letters you used.

If the small chunks you use are meaningful to the content, it's much better. Breaking the bones down into those in the arm, leg, pelvis etc. is a good system. How many are in each chunk? How many chunks (body parts) are you including in your system? Learn one at a time and then put it all together.

C. Study Cards/Sheets

In creating study cards or study sheets, you are using kinetic energy to build knowledge. It's a great way of "doing"—mentally and physically. But don't just copy information verbatim from one place to another. That can sometimes become a mindless process in which your hand moves, and 90% of your brain zones out.

If you're reorganizing—actively deciding what goes on your study sheet and what doesn't—then your brain is aroused. It has to think! At the same time you're organizing material on a sheet or card, you're also organizing it and reinforcing it in your mind.

Another reason for making study cards/sheets is that they are terrific memory aids just before a test. Usually you've condensed the information somewhat, and you can memorize the basics more easily. Explain each section accurately and thoroughly from memory. Check yourself until you're sure you're remembering everything correctly. Be sure you can recall more than what's actually on the card if you've condensed the material. Use these study aids you created to self-test and practice recall.

D. Final Thoughts

  1. It's essential that you focus and stay in touch with your learning goals. If you truly intend to learn something, you probably will.
  2. Time is the currency of your life. It makes sense to manage it.
  3. Sometimes it's not easy to know what you know and what you don't, what's important and what's not. Find good ways to monitor your learning.
  4. The faculty can be truly amazing resources. Use them.
  5. Group study is a great complement to studying on your own. It helps you expand your perspective, check your understanding for accuracy, assess the breadth of your knowledge, and do more expressive learning (through teaching portions of the material).
  6. Courses are not like pleasure cruises. Some you will enjoy thoroughly, but not necessarily all of them. Don't base your willingness to be engaged on how entertaining the course is. Remember why you're taking it!
  7. Stress can sneak up on you. Be sure you have ways of unwinding...and use them.
  8. SEEK OUT HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT. There's a LOT available, and using it shows good judgment. Never take overwhelming stress on by yourself!

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