Finding a study system that works for you

One of the most daunting parts about coming to medical school, or university in general, is figuring out how you’re going to study. Finding an effective study system at university can save you a lot of stress and struggle as exam season approaches. You may have a few techniques that work for you now, and they may be things you can bring to university or adapt them to make them fit your degree. In sixth form, I had sort of gotten it right. I was turning my class notes into pretty notes, and then into flashcards, and then Quizlets. I thought this worked because the repetition was helping me to recall the information, but it was actually the spaced repetition and active recall of the Quizlet cards that got my grades to get me into medical school. My ‘pretty’ notes were basically that – I never looked at them and read them so the hours I spent writing them was wasted. 

But regardless, it’s useful to look at your study system before you go into medical school. The teaching style is completely different and you may not have a study system that matches the style of teaching. I’ve now finished my first year of medical school (and passed!), I would like to share some of my study system tips with you. 

Disclaimer – I attend the University of Birmingham Medical School so some things may be a little Birmingham-specific (day timings, facilities etc.) 

Step 1: Figure out how you learn and study

I’m sure you’ve heard this 1000 times already but knowing how you learn best is so important to figure out before you start trying to study. Medical school can be difficult and even though a lot of the lecturers are very good, sometimes you have a bad lecture and have to learn a concept yourself. For me, I use a system which revolves around using the lecture materials to create 🔗 Anki flashcards. Anki is completely free (unless you’re using the App on iOS (so an iPhone/iPad).

If you’ve not heard of Anki before, it’s a digital tool that you can use to create flashcards, and it has integrated spaced repetition into its system. So, the harder you find a flashcard, the more you will have to answer it. 

My system for learning and studying works a little like this:

  1. Pre-reading – going over the lecture slides, finding new definitions and filling in any pre-work. 
  2. Go to the lecture/anatomy practical and annotate the slides/worksheets with anything additional that is not on the materials. Pick up on anything not understood in the pre-reading and ensure that it is answered. 
  3. Following the lecture, go over any concepts not understood using older year notes, online textbooks and videos. 
  4. Go through the materials and turn concepts into questions on Anki in the relevant subject folder. 
  5. Review Anki cards daily, regularly making note of things I don’t get. 

Generally, I try to get my review work (so making my Anki cards) while I am still at medical school or as soon after the lecture as possible while the information is still fresh in my head. This leaves my weekends and evenings a little bit freer for pre-work and for extra-curriculars. Consider what is important to you (e.g. playing sports, not working in the evenings) and try to integrate this into your system. 

Step 2: Find a few good study environments

One thing that I learned very quickly once I had moved to university is that I could not study for very long in my bedroom. For me, that was my place of relaxation, and so it made doing any schoolwork in there impossible, and a huge waste of time. Personally, I like to go to the library to work, because it takes me away from my room and being in such an intensely academic environment motivates me to work harder (no-one wants to be seen scrolling through TikTok at their university library, right?). 

The issue with this is that in exam season, the library becomes cramped and crowded (and smelly!), and sometimes it can be boring to go to the same place. If your university has more than one study space, explore them early on and find a few that you enjoy visiting. I’m very lucky in the sense that Birmingham has many different study spaces to choose from.  In my most recent exam season, I would go to the medical school library fairly early in the day most days to settle in for a day of revision because it was quieter, a lot cooler, and the medical school has its own café which does delicious iced lattes for fairly cheap, so I had something to look forward to. Making your chosen environment somewhere you somewhat enjoy being means the dread of going to study is less heavy. 

Some of my friends prefer to study as a group, and sometimes changing up your environment every now and then is useful. At one stage in exam season I was feeling stressed and very down, and decided to meet up with a few friends and work through my flashcards verbally instead of typing out my answers, and we talked through concepts and had a lovely time. 

Step 3: Active recall and spaced repetition

I’ve sort of already touched on this but active recall and spaced repetition are the way forward with degrees like medicine. The hardest part about the content with medicine is the sheer volume of it! And this means as students we need to find an effective way to retain and understand what we learn. 

As you already know I (and many other medical students) use Anki as a way of memorising and learning information. It’s highly intuitive and you can adjust how much you are learning in a day. Active recall and spaced repetition are scientifically backed for a number of reasons. Active recall (so answering questions or filling in blanks) is a lot more effective because you are having to work to remember information rather than passively reading it, and spaced repetition disturbs the forgetting curve by getting you to revisit the information again. 

This is what one of my Anki questions and answers looks like. I would read the question and either type out my answer or answer it verbally, and then press to reveal the answer. If I didn’t know at all I would select ‘again’, which would reset the review intervals, or I would select a difficulty rating if I got the answer right. 

The key thing to remember is little and often – doing a small number of reviews every day will help to keep you current and will keep you in a good routine. 

A method I like to use in exam season is called blurting, also sometimes called reverse note-taking. This is where you write out some headings for the topic you want to revise and write out as much as you can remember about the topic. This is useful for finding gaps in your knowledge and things you often forget. I generally do this in a format that follows Cornell Note Taking (see below), where I use the left column for headings and forgotten bits, the main body for blurting and the bottom section for a revision plan. 

Step 4 – Know how to tackle exam season 

I like to do the bare minimum in exam season. With my Anki cards already made, I like to focus on understanding core content through a thorough review of my Anki cards, exam questions and tackling things I don’t understand. Exam season at university can be daunting, especially in medical school because you see everyone doing different things. Knowing how to tackle exam season with your mental health in tact is very important, and this is how I keep organised. 

I like to start my revision plan at least 3 weeks before my first exam. I start off with a review day, where I write out my problem areas and to-do list, covering all of the things I want to revise. From this I create a revision plan, which typically only incorporates one subject per day, with multiple topics from that subject (e.g. one day will be nervous system, the next will be digestive, but I will cover different topics from each of the subjects within that day). I like to only do one subject per day as I find this less overwhelming and it means I can form connections I may not have done previously. 

Each day I will start by writing a to do list with time stamps, before going through my Anki reviews and typing my answers out onto OneNote. I set a timer for 1hr 30 mins and go until the timer runs out, where I will take a break before continuing. I generally aim to do some practice questions on a site called PeerWise for each of the subjects I want to revise. I work through my to do list periodically and take plenty of breaks in between, where I read a book, put on Netflix or go for a little walk. 

Here’s a example of a revision plan I made for over the Easter holiday. As you can see I included social things, which I tend to put in first, and dedicated one or two days to each subject. 

Tip 5 – Learn how to manage your time 

A lot of medical school is just about managing your time to get everything you need to done. I can become easily overwhelmed if I have a lot going on so I tend to write out a to-do list for the day and for the week, and track how I’m doing. I also sometimes have an action plan for the day on the go, which gives me a little bit of order to what I’m doing. I’ve experimented with time blocking and just going with the flow, and found that during term-time I work better with no time limits and just working through the order I set myself, and then during exam season I benefit more from time-blocking in order to get everything done. 

To keep organised I use Flora and Notion. If you’ve not heard of them, Flora is an app that acts as a timer where you grow a virtual tree while you’re working, and if you close the app for whatever reason you kill the tree. I find this motivating (for some reason) and it helps me when I’m timeblocking. Notion is a workspace app which is highly intuitive and you can turn it into a hub for all of your work and school-related things. I’ve used Notion for two years and have a dashboard set up for medical school, which has links to my work, calendars and to-do lists. I work mainly on Notion and use it to keep myself organised. 

One of my biggest pieces of advice while planning is to take everything into account. As you can see below in my action plan I take into account lectures and scheduled teaching, as well as eating dinner and any social things going on. I always try to plan in any social/self-care activities first and work my revision around that in order to stay happy and not become burned out. Medical school can become very miserable if you’re not making time for yourself and the activities you enjoy – university is full of opportunities to explore different things and make new connections and so it’s essential to make time for these things! 

A few bits of general advice… 

I hope my top tips for finding a working study system are useful! Do remember when you’re planning that planning is always idealistic and you’re generally not able to foresee how the day will go and what will happen that may derail your plans. If you don’t finish your to-do list don’t be disheartened! It’s much more important to look after yourself – working to burnout is the most unproductive thing you can do. 

Remember to enjoy what you’re learning and enjoy the journey. Lots of people want to get into medical school and not everyone does, and it is easy to become bogged down in the content and needing to revise that the medical magic disappears and you begin learning to memorise – take the time to appreciate that what you are learning is phenomenal and our bodies do incredible things. We are learning to appreciate the human body, to learn how to find things wrong with it and how to fix it. That is a privilege and sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of that. 

Best of luck from InsideUni Medicine!

Written by Georgia Swinnerton

I’m Georgia and I’ve just finished my first year of medical school at the University of Birmingham. I’m interested in osteology and orthopaedics, and am passionate about getting people into medical school. Outside of my degree I run, play sports, and get involved with all sorts of activities.