Throughout the first half of medical school, my learning style has changed tremendously. When I compare how I studied in undergrad to how I study now, I am quite surprised with the changes.
Before medical school, I would go over each concept taught in class thoroughly. I would read over the material slowly until I understood it and would take detailed notes. This proved to be effective as the bulk of my courses were in the physical sciences (physics and chem) and maths. I would only go through the materials once or twice and be prepared for the test.
However in medical school information is presented in a different way and with that my studying habits have also undergone a radical paradigm shift. The main difference I find is the volume of knowledge you have to cover. For each disease or medical condition, you have to understand the physiology, pathology, pathophysiology basic sciences, clinical signs, treatments, prognosis and epidemiology. And if you decide to use my old method of thorough meticulous notes, you would never be able to cover all the material.
Furthermore, there is a lot of uncertainty in medicine. The answers aren’t always clear cut like they were in physics. There are tons of questions where there are no good answers.
To handle all this information, I have taken a “shotgun-sequencing” approach to learning. I find this metaphor extremely relevant to the difference between my old way of learning and my new way. Much like the actual shotgun sequencing of DNA, instead of going through a piece of DNA sequentially and thoroughly (which is a slow approach), you learn in random snippets and fragments which is assembled together afterward.
Using this shotgun approach, I can now cover more material in less time. However, to maintain the same precision and thoroughness of knowledge as before, I have to cover the material several more times to make sure I really know my stuff. I find that magic number to be somewhere near five to six times. Because of the time needed to go over the material several more times, there is not really a speed advantage. I still spend about the same amount of time studying.
The true advantage of this learning approach, at least for medicine, is the integrative nature. Medicine is all about making connections between the basic sciences and clinical practices. It’s about understanding the many interactions between the body, disease and treatment. After going over the materials 5-6x, knowledge begins to integrate in a very strong and cohesive way. Instead of a linear mode of thinking, you start to understand things laterally, forwards and backwards.
For example: Not only do you understand the causes of syncope (fainting), but you can also come up with a differential diagnosis of what causes it, what drugs can treat it, what other symptoms would be present. By shotgunning your learning, you build a complex web of knowledge that is characteristic of medicine.