Learning Skills Services, Student Development Centre

Medical Students

What is medical school really like? SDC's Learning Skills counsellors asked students in Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry about their experiences and approaches to learning. Sample responses of common themes are posted here.

For more information see, "Learning in Medical School: Transition Issues, Strategy Use, and Self-Regulation," in The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 35, No. 4 by Denise Reaume and Tracey Ropp.

How are pre-med and first-year medicine different?

  • "The amount of material covered in lectures increased exponentially."
  • "In pre-med I could cram. There's just too much material to do that now."
  • "The sheer volume of material takes a little getting used to, but each of us develops different ways to study and absorb the material as necessary for examinations. Perhaps some might complain that class time and materials to be learnt are excessive, and admittedly, it is a lot, but everyone adapts."
  • "University before med school was way more competitive, and I felt a lot of pressure to perform. In medical school I feel like there's more of a common bond between students. It feels a lot more like 'everyone's in this thing together'."
  • "The biggest difference is the sense of camaraderie that was absent in undergrad."

How do you manage the heavy volume of information in medical school?

  • "I try to go over all the material taught in a given week at the end of each week. If possible, I try to go over what I learn on any given day the same day. Repetition is key."
  • "My technique for managing the large volume of material is repetition. I try to work through material several times before an exam, gaining more concepts and committing information to memory each time through."
  • "I attend all lectures to determine if any additional reading is necessary. I usually only do additional reading if I don't understand a concept or if I want a broader understanding of what is presented."
  • "I go to almost all classes, get more or less familiarized with the material there, then go over it in more depth later through studying. I still cram a bit more than I'd like in the weeks leading up to exams, but much less than in undergrad."
  • "I read the notes once, go through again and highlight, and then read again before exams. I don't make study notes unless I can't absorb the material. Small group sessions, when held, are great for consolidating information."

How do you manage your time?

  • "I make a conscious effort to ensure that I devote time to family, exercise, and extra-curricular activities. It's only recently that I've come to realize that I'm actually far more productive when I have a good balance between the social and academic aspects of my life."
  • "For me, it has been important to set priorities and know what I am willing to sacrifice. I try to stay organized and up-to-date on course material to avoid becoming overwhelmed. I devote 2-4 hours/day to course work from the very beginning of term. I also schedule exercise into the day - before class in the morning or it simply doesn't get done!"
  • "Sleep. Workout. If you don't you can spend an hour reading a page that should take 5 minutes."
  • "I try to stay on top of things and study consistently through the term instead of leaving everything to the last minute. Studying an hour or two each day makes it easier to absorb all the information."
  • "I manage my time by not wasting time and by keeping busy. I find that the fewer things I have to do, the less I get done. So even during 'crunch time' I still make time to exercise and do things for me, not school. But I'm always working throughout the term, not just at the end."

How do you prepare for exams?

  • "I begin preparing earlier rather than later, and don't stress about every detail. I've found that a good night's sleep before the exam is much better than cramming all night long."
  • "Think actively about what might be tested. Look for lists, exceptions, emphasized points."
  • "Emphasize the common concepts between a group of diseases (e.g., the common thread between all the congenital valvular diseases). For second year, study with the mantra of "Do no harm," because profs like to ask questions where physicians are likely to do harm to a patient (e.g. beta blockers are contraindicated in asthmatic patients)."
  • "I try not to get stressed out. I still exercise and try to eat well, and I try to get as much sleep leading up to exams as possible. Getting sleep deprived during exams is one thing, but being sleep deprived prior to exams is a real killer."
  • "Typically I read and reread the notes over and over again. I am a firm believer in spacing out studying over the days, because I find that if I study something and then sleep on it for a few days and return to it, I retain so much more than I would if I were to spend all my time during the one day on a topic."

What would you do differently if you could start again in medical school?

  • "I would try to learn things well and commit them to memory the first time through the material, so that prior to the exam studying would be faster and easier. In pre-medical education there was usually ample time to review a course completely just prior to the exam. In medicine, there is so much material that it is not usually possible to review a course completely in the days prior to an exam. Furthermore, committing things to memory early and then reviewing them later helps the information to 'stick' more permanently."
  • "I would learn how to pace myself better. It's hard to be effective when you're constantly sick and tired. It took me time to adjust to the high volume of material when given so much less independent time as compared to undergrad. As a result, learning how to pace yourself and getting motivated early in the semester is important."
  • "If I could start over again, I would try to study more often on a daily basis."
  • "I wouldn't get so worked up about exams. Marks don't mean as much as they did in undergrad, so you don't really need to go the extra mile to try and get 95%."
  • "I would start reviewing for exams earlier. Exams are easy things if you stay on top of the work as the term goes by. It's difficult to keep up on things when you're in the midst of meeting 132 new people though!"
  • "Mostly, I just wish that I hadn't felt somewhat intimidated coming in. When you're first here, there's a tendency to think, 'This is going to be tough... everyone here is probably super-smart... everyone keeps telling me how hard med school is.' It's really not that bad at all."

What is the best advice that you received about learning in medical school?

  • "To focus on learning to become a better physician rather than the best student. Memorizing all the information is not useful if you don't know how to apply it or the importance it will have later on."
  • "Go to class! Lots of people skip, but the people that are doing the best in our class are the ones that go to class."
  • "The faster you stop worrying about marks, the better life will be. Don't be intimidated by the other students in your class. It will seem at first as if they're all more intelligent, interesting, dynamic, etc. than you, but it's not true."
  • "You can't know everything, so don't even try. It quickly became apparent that this was true, and that I'd drive myself crazy if I tried to know absolutely everything perfectly. I try to prioritize."
  • "If you are having difficulty with a certain subject or personal issues, take an active stance and approach someone. Don't wait until the last minute or until the problems worsen. Faculty are awesome here at UWO (Western) and are always willing to help students out."