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How to Study

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

When you start school, they tell you to work hard. You say to yourself, “Duh!” Then they tell you to do so efficiently and effectively. You say, “Tell me more!” Unfortunately, the elaboration is sometimes lacking. At my school, an administrator briefly talked to us about the value of whiteboards, but spent far more time instilling the fear of God. Fortunately, one of my classmates posted a study about learning on our class Facebook page. Although it is very concise, I will spare you the time since you are likely either exceedingly busy premeds or medical students (for those interested though, the full study can be found here:

Ultimately, the study proves that the most efficient and effective learning is comprised of three elements: the testing effect, active recall, and spaced repetitions. First, the testing effect refers to the fact that testing yourself while learning material is superior to studying the material via non-testing means. Moreover, testing without feedback (whether or not you got the answer right) was even been shown to be superior to alternative non-testing methods by the mentioned study. Convinced yet?

Second, active recall refers to consciously producing previously learned information without the aid of cues. Conversely, an example of passively studying would be simply rereading or summarizing facts. Even multiple choice testing is not active recall, since you are provided cues from the answer choices themselves. An example of active recall would be organically producing the adverse effects of beta-blockers. Go! To further convince you, active recall is superior to passive methods even if you have not been exposed to the material before. Pretty cool huh?

Third, spaced repetitions encompasses increasing the time period between exposure to the material, preferably incorporating the testing effect and active recall ;). Now, you may be thinking, how do I do all this? Testing yourself and actively studying the material is easy to incorporate, but what about the spaced repetitions. While making a calendar for yourself is possible, there is a much easier way: the free online flashcard software called Anki! Did I mention free?

I love Anki because it flawlessly and conveniently incorporates all three elements of effective and efficient learning. How it works is you create decks of digital cards. Here is an example.

It is better to create one deck per course, or course block, and then tag each respective card with something that identifies it, such as the title of a lecture, as opposed to creating a deck for each lecture. Doing the later makes it harder to get adequate exposure to all of your cards. The picture below shows all my tags on the left.

While there are several different card formats you can make or download, I prefer to stick with the basic front and back template. I write a question, or series of questions, under the front label and then the corresponding answer or answers under the back label. Even cooler yet is that fact that I can easily throw screen shots into the answer section. Since I am a very visual learner, this is appealing.

Now, when you are studying your decks, you are testing yourself since you are writing questions on the front of the cards. Also, active recall is in play because no cues are provided. You are organically recalling the content. As for the spaced repetition, there is an algorithm build into the program. As you study cards, you manually input your understanding of them. Below you can see how the bottom has the following options: again, hard, good, or easy. Each one has a corresponding timeframe for showing you the card again. Anki tracks your understanding of each card through these responses, showing you the cards you struggle with more frequently than those you comprehend easily. Either way, there is spaced repetition that accurately reflects your understanding of the material.

The most frequently cited complaint about Anki is the time necessary to create cards. My counter is this. Your first pass through the material, after the lecture, is generally pretty slow going. Moreover, most people interact with the material in some fashion, such as creating an outline. If you are already doing this, why not spend that interaction time making cards? You are still reviewing the material and you now have cards made that will facilitate the most effective and efficient learning. Also, if you create digital outlines, making cards is as simple as taking screen shots.

In short, Anki is my preferred study method because of everything I have said thus far. I would love to hear about why you love it or how you use it in the comment section below. I hope it helps you optimize your studying as much as it has for me. If you run any into any difficulties don’t hesitate to reach out. Happy studying!

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