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Studying for Exams

Because of the quantity of material covered in your classes, falling too far behind may mean you will never catch up sufficiently to do well on exams. Read the handout on daily study routines and stick to some sort of schedule.

Preview, Intake, Review.

  • This is the basic process for learning, whether from a lecture or your text.
  • A brief preview before you attend a lecture or read a section of text will provide advance organizers that will help you understand and integrate the new material.
  • An immediate review (within 24 hours of intake) will dramatically increase your retention.

Decide what to learn.

  • Narrow your focus . If you try to learn everything that might possibly be tested, you will have a hard time learning anything thoroughly.
  • For clues about what to focus on, pay attention to the following: the professor's learning objectives, study guides, the professor's notes on Blackboard, material written on the board or overhead, review sessions, and topics mentioned in the last class before the exam,.
  • If you're unsure about the level of detail you will be responsible for, ask students who are a year ahead and/or consult with a professor . Use a few pages of your notes or textbook as a model, and tell the professor what you think you should know from those pages; then ask for feedback.
  • Ask yourself what you would test if you were the professor.
  • Examine old tests .
  • Once you develop a sense of what to learn, write questions or cues in the margins of your notes beside anything important. Write these questions in red so that you can use them to quiz yourself on the material later on. (Glance down, looking for words in red and then try to answer the question.)
  • If you still feel overwhelmed by the quantity of material, start with the least you need to learn. Later you can add to your base.
  • Immediately after your first exam , go through your notes and highlight any material that was on the test (use a unique color for this). Think of this as a model of the kinds of things you should study as you begin the new material. Also, if you have a cumulative final in the class, this highlighting will prove useful.

Begin to learn and retain right from the start.

  • Some students first go through the material with the intent to check it off a to do list. You can make your first encounter with the material more productive by intending to learn and retain right from the start.
  • Recognize the basis of organization of the material so that you have a kind of filing system for each new piece of information. Material might be organized chronologically (stages in a disease process), spatially (the nervous system), degree of importance (symptoms of a disease), causal ( how therapies affect a disease).

Move beyond rote, short-term memorization.

  • There are several reasons why simple memorization is ineffective in a health professional program : (1) Material learned by rote is stored in short-term memory, and the quantity of material you need to learn in your classes is simply too great for the storage capacity of your short-term memory. (2) When you truly understand a concept you are better able to guess intelligently when you forget a detail. (3) Finally, deep level understanding will help you make sound judgment calls during clinical practice.
  • Link new information to what you already know . These linkages help you understand, and they also provide memory pegs that help with recall. Some of these links involve details that elaborate on a structure or process. Some links involve an analogy (for example, realizing that an underlying mechanism is similar to another). Some links involve a distinction (this drug uses a different mechanism from others).
  • Study the visuals in your textbooks and lecture slides, and try to talk your way through them, converting visual information to words .
  • Conversely, t ake material presented in words and try to turn it into a visual image . The more you manipulate the material in various ways, the better you will understand and retain it.
  • Focus on examples because they can frequently help you understand complex ideas. Also, they create vivid memory pegs that will help you retain the material.
  • Study with another student or with a group . Try to explain what you've learned to your study partners. Don't simply recite the information, but explain the how and why . It can also be helpful to try to explain something to a friend or family member who has little knowledge of science/medicine. As you verbalize a concept, you clarify your understanding of it and you also improve retention.

Identify and then clarify areas of confusion.

  • Talk your way through the material, explaining things to yourself as you go. Be on the lookout for anything you can't explain, and when you find it, seek clarification. Consult textbooks and online resources that present the material in a different manner. Talk with other students.
  • If you're still confused, consult a professor, T.A., or tutor . When you're in a health professional program, it's important to put your pride to the side and admit when you're confused.

Prepare review tools and study with others.

  • Write summary sheets, charts, or diagrams . Be brief. You don't want to simply recopy your notes; you are trying to condense and paraphrase.
  • Study with a partner or group . Your study partners can help clarify what is confusing and the discussion will create a vivid memory peg. Also, your study partners can collaborate with you on creating review tools (assign ahead of time and then share).

Use aids to memory.

  • For facts that are not particularly meaningful (such as some drug names), use memory aids, such as those below.
  • Write important material on a blackboard (the large size seems to help).
  • Walk around while reciting your notes or quizzing yourself.
  • Use mnemonic devices for large lists or facts that are difficult to recall.
  • Mnemonic sentences that are funny, off color, or personalized will often stay in your memory longer. Don't forget to rehearse the mnemonic so you won't forget it.
  • Try the loci method. Take a particular location such as your apartment and then associate each room of that location with a key word. Practice mentally moving through the location and associating one item with each room. This works especially well when you need to remember a sequence.
  • Link diseases and medications to people you know or to patients you have seen.

Review, review, review.

  • The larger the quantity of material, the more times you will need to review it.
  • Reciting increases your level of attention, it creates a stronger memory trace, and it provides immediate feedback on how well you know the material.
  • As you quiz yourself, highlight the material you consistently miss so you can return to it later for more review.
  • Avoid marathon study sessions and instead, review frequently and in small “doses” with plenty of breaks.

  Use practice exams.

  • Analyze how the professors word their questions and look for patterns of thinking . What do the professors think is important and how do they ask questions?
  • The purpose of using practice exams is to determine how well you know the material and how well you are able to reason through the questions themselves . Read the handout on practice exams for more information about this useful tool.
  • Do at least one timed practice exam. Some exams can be difficult to finish in time, so you need to practice working under time constraints.
  • Begin practicing with questions in licensing review books, even as you study for classroom exams. Many professors try to prepare you for licensing exams by writing similar kinds of questions. Begin to work on your question analysis by practicing with review books (simply skip the material you haven't yet studied).

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