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Study Skills

Seven study skills/learning tactics to apply to medical school learning opportunities

Surveying Techniques

Surveying is a skill that can be applied to a wide range of learning opportunities. Surveying a block of subject material (an instructor's handout, a section of a course syllabus, a chapter in a textbook, a patient's chart) is carried out by skimming the material to be studied. Read major topics and subheading and the first sentence of paragraphs. Look quickly at charts and diagrams and read the captions. Textbooks usually have a summary at the end of each chapter that will provide an overview. Surveying carries out the following important functions:

  • Overcomes student inertia. Surveying is an excellent way to start to study.
  • Provides advance organizers. Advance organizers serve as topics or categories around which facts and details may be organized and subsequently learned. Advance organizers have been shown to be very important in helping students learn, remember, and interrelate material they have studied.
  • Builds a foundation: A preview of the material to be studied and learned forms a broad framework of prior knowledge upon which new knowledge and understanding can be built.

Organizational Techniques

Information can be organized is many different ways. Understanding the pattern of organization of information is an important guide to learning the information. Common patterns of organization are given below.


Information may be sequenced by:

  • events in time; example = events in a normal menstrual cycle.
  • stages leading to an end point; example = stages of a disease.
  • position in space or location; example = structures arranged in sequence from the dorsal surface to the ventral surface of the chest cavity.
  • importance; example = from most to least important symptoms of a disease process.


A common pattern of organization when items of information are all related to a common topic.


Provides meaning and identity to general classifications and gives distinguishing characteristics.


Organizes according to categories or characteristics.

Cause and Effect

Organization pattern present when events are causally related.

Compare and contrast

Organizes by comparing similarities and/or contrasting differences.

Concept Mapping Technique

Humans learn new information best by integrating the new information into an existing knowledge base. Concept mapping utilizes this knowledge about learning by providing a technique by which interrelationships can be mapped or charted. It taps into a learner's cognitive structure and externalizes what the learner already knows while depicting relevant concepts and relationships the learner is currently learning. A meaningful map will integrate the new knowledge with the previous knowledge.

Highlighting and Attaching Questions

Many students use highlighting or underlining techniques to emphasize information that they believe to be important. A process for increasing the efficacy of highlighting as a study skill/learning tactic is to attach questions to the highlighted text material. When a passage of text is highlighted, ask what question does the highlighted text answer, and write that question in the margin of you notes or textbook. Connect the question to the highlighted text and double check the question-answer relationship. What, why, when, where, which, how, and who questions tend to interrelate information and make a handy hook on which to hang information. The technique is a memory directed tactic, and is particularly useful in preparing for multiple choice examinations.

Imaging Techniques

Imaging skills are perhaps one of the more important skills/learning tactics that you can develop in medical school. Imaging skills will involve the right hemisphere in the learning process. The right hemisphere tends to process separate elements into a holistic view of the information being learned. If you depend only on words and language for learning information, you are neglecting one of the most powerful ways of learning. By learning to convert written and/or spoken language into images you enter into "whole brain learning". The skill is really the reverse of seeing something and then describing what you see in descriptive language. In imaging, the more senses you can employ, the more effective the image will be for remembering information. Clinicians use the same skill when they palpate an abdomen. Many will shut their eyes and try to visualize what they are palpating with their fingers. This is an example of the first medical imaging machine.

Reinforcement Techniques

These are study skills designed to facilitate learning and to store the learned material in long term memory banks. Frequent repetition is an example of a reinforcement technique. Other examples are using new information to solve problems or to answer questions, and the "see one, do one, teach one" technique used to teach clinical skills. In the basic sciences frequent repetition and using the information to solve problems or to answer questions are the most effective techniques. A sequence of reinforcement might look like this:

  • The evening before a class survey the subject material to be covered the next day. Skim the text or syllabus. Major topics, subheadings, and the first sentence of paragraphs might be read. Charts and graphs are quickly scanned and the captions are read. Major topics and concepts are quickly listed in the notebook used for lecture notes. The skimming and major topics list should be done in 30 minutes. The list will form "advance organizers" that will serve as categories or concepts around which other information can be learned and organized. Also take about 15 minutes to look back over the work that you did after the preceding class session.
  • Attend to the lecture next day by adding information as subtopics under the list of advance organizers. The structure of each of the major concepts will begin to form as you carry out this task. Do not try to write down every thing. Most faculty present a syllabus, handout, or reading assignment that will contain the details needed to understand the topic under discussion. Take 3-4 minutes to read through your notes immediately after the lecture.
  • That evening read your notes again and either begin to work out the content of the instructor's learning objectives or write out three or four questions that you will answer during that evenings study period. Again, move quickly, using the objectives or questions to guide your study. Return to step 1 the evening prior to the next scheduled class in each subject.
  • The weekend will play an important role in this reinforcement scheme. Study time during the weekend might be used to go back over the weeks work, tie up loose ends, and to organize the weeks work so that it can be easily reviewed prior to an examination.

Taking notes from Lectures

It is very helpful to "skim" the material to be covered before the lecture, and to provide a list of advance organizers so that you can relate what the lecturer says to what you already know. Active listening is an important skill that will help you get maximum learning gain from a lecture. To listen actively, listen for the signals the lecturer uses to stress important information. There are seven common signals used by most lecturers to signal important information:

  • Introduction of a topic: For example "next, I am going to discuss..."
  • Words that stress importance: For example "It is important to know that ...", "You should remember that ...", "The next exam will cover ...".
  • Definitions: "The term adductor means ...", "Atrophy is a process that ...".
  • Identification of a list or series of steps: "The stages in the process of wound healing are ...", "Damage to the ulnar nerve will cause the following list of problems...".
  • Writing on the blackboard, speaking slowly and louder, body language.
  • Showing a graphic or drawing on the blackboard.
  • Summarizing or restating important points.

The second portion of taking notes concerns organization of the subject material in some sort of descending order of detail. The list of advance organizers that you prepared by previewing the subject matter to be covered in class could form the major headings in an outline, or the first step in the development of a "concept map". The outline would develop the subject material from more general to specific details. A concept map will interconnect the elements in the outline and demonstrate visually how they are related.

Group Study or Peer Teaching

One of the most powerful ways to learn is to teach other students about a subject. One of the most efficient ways of completing the work of the medical curriculum is to organize a committed group of three or four students that will study, teach, and learn together. Preparation and presentation of subject material is a reinforcement exercise that increases the learning of each "student teacher". Group discussion afterwards moves the learning from rote memorization into a conceptual understanding of the subject.

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