There is still great emphasis on memorization during medical school from year one through graduation. Whether quizzes, presentations of patient cases or national board examinations, memorization is required.
Almost every medical school student worries about whether he or she will be able to adequately memorize information to complete medical training and pass board exams. While most succeed, prospective medical school students can use these five memorization tools and techniques now for practice and later during medical school.
- Words and images: Words, phrases, and sequences of pictures can help you retain knowledge. Students historically have learned the branches of the circle of Willis by memorizing names for the legs of the “spider.”
Just like you memorized the colors of the spectrum as ROY G. BIV, students learn nerves, bones and blood vessels using similar techniques. The idea is to make strong associations with each letter or picture.
Years ago I picked up a self-help memory course that urged the learner to picture sexual or violent images in association with something they needed to remember. The idea was that negative images interrupted their normal pattern of thinking and, as a result, when attached to information for recall, the learner could retrieve the information more easily.
Creating surprising, outlandish stories are another tool for remembering information. I found that mixing absurd stories with pictures or images in my head was more successful than using stories alone. Each character or object was in some way connected to the next, and the more unlikely the association, the better I remembered it.
- Making connections: Joshua Foer, who wrote a memoir about memory “Moonwalking with Einstein,” won competitions for memorizing the order of playing cards, names in a phone book and other long lists of neutral information.
One technique he uses is to attach images that somehow connect to the things he wants to remember, and places those images in rooms of his house. This way, as he mentally walks through his house, he can visualize the images and recall the information.
A version of the room method could be to assign an object in a certain color to something you need to recall. For example, you might picture blue water for deoxygenated blood and red wine for freshly oxygenated blood.
If aqua were a favorite color of someone close to me who had to take a particular medication, I could envision the name of the medication written in aqua on a placard held by that person. I could attach an illness to certain organs and remember particular components of the physiology, pathology or even psychological ramifications that could result.
- Spaced repetition: Cramming is no longer a satisfactory way to prepare for exams, especially the MCAT or board examinations that require longer-term prep. The idea behind this technique is to self-test after studying, wait a few weeks to a month and then retest yourself.
Students can self-test with questions online from the National Board of Medical Examiners or other sources like Online MedEd. Students can also make or purchase flashcards to self-test with. And you can easily practice using this technique, which seems to enhance both memorization and skill acquisition, while you’re in college.
A word of caution, however: Since information changes over time, choose a system that updates information frequently. OnlineMedEd, which is designed to help students prepare for Step 2 CK of the U.S. medical licensing exam, is a continually updated system that uses spaced repetition.
- Interleaving: Another concept, called interleaving, involves switching topics frequently while you’re studying. For example, if you need to study anatomy and chemistry to prepare for an exam, switch between the two topics rather than studying anatomy first and then chemistry.
The trick, though, is to try to make connections between the topics while you’re studying them. For instance, if you are studying pharmacology, you may then switch and study physiology. Try and recall the physiological mechanisms that create the drug positive actions and the mechanisms that create side effects. While this technique might feel counterintuitive, interleaving requires you to recall information more frequently, which helps to cement the information.
Using this technique may be harder and slower at the onset, compared to spaced repetition, for example, but the information is better understood in the long run, according to some reports.
- Self-testing products: These products are available for MCAT preparation and later for medical board examinations. Many medical students can vouch for their success – like the thousands who spend hours on QBank, a database of practice questions for the U.S. medical licensing examination.
For pre-med students, the Association of American Medical Colleges offers numerous practice questions to help prepare for the MCAT. Practice these for the length of the real exam and to take breaks at the same time you will have them on the actual test day.
Use self-testing products as you would if you were preparing for a marathon. Start with one to two hours of practice and then gradually extend the hours to mimic the full test time. You’ll learn to compensate and overcome fatigue, just as you would if you were in a marathon.
Self-testing products aren’t magic, but they do create connections that make critical reasoning easier. They don’t boost memory like a healthy breakfast and a good night’s sleep, but they offer hints or by repetition create increased confidence and less anxiety. All of these together can work to hone your study skills.
Beyond these five tips and tools, use techniques that have an emotional grasp on you as a memory device, and test multiple methods, like spaced repetition and interleaving, along with your favorites and compare them. By experimenting with different techniques, you’ll find one or more that work well for you.
Remember, the memorization skills you learn today will serve you both personally and professionally as you pursue a career in the medical field.