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Studying In Medical School – A Timely Analysis

Today’s guest post comes from Ryan Nguyen, an osteopathic medical student who blogs at WhiteCoatDO. You can also connect with him on twitter via @RNguyenMed.

 “So how much do you really study?”

My non-medical friends often wonder where I’ve disappeared to for the past year, they’re fascinated by the idea that I spend just so much time studying. Sure, I had to put in a decent amount of work during college to even make it to this point, but my course load at UC Santa Barbara seems like a brisk walk in the park compared to the tidal wave of information that needs to be conquered for each exam now.

In an effort to quantify really just how much time I was studying, I tracked every single minute I spent preparing for one of my exams during the school year. What exactly did this mean? Every hour spent in-class, watching lecture playbacks, outlines powerpoints, or reviewing in group was written down. The exam, from my “Introduction to Disease, Immunity, and Therapies” block encompassed 2 weeks of material and roughly 37 hours of lecture material. To put that in comparison, a typical 4.0 unit class at UC Santa Barbara would cover about 30 hours of lecture material over a 10 week span. Medical school sure has a way of jam-packing information into a very brief amount of time.

In order to keep the data as accurate as possible I ONLY logged time that was spent studying. This meant I “clocked-out” any time I spent surfing the web or even going to the bathroom. For example, if I was at a coffee shop for 3 hours, I probably spent ~2.5 hours actually studying and 30 minutes for other things. After doing the actual studying and test-taking, the results were tabulated as follows.

What does this all mean?

I spent a lot of time studying

In total, I spent 76.8 hours studying for this one exam. That translates to roughly two hours spent dedicated to each hour of lecture material. On average, I would study for 4.8 hours/day, but there was a definite disparity between how much time I spent per day during the first week (3.5 hours/day) and the last five days before the exam (7.2 hours/day). Unfortunately, there’s no data on how many hours I spent studying as a premed, but I’m confident in saying my “light” 3.5 hour study days now would put some of my more “intense college study sessions” to shame. The only comparable experience is finals week in college, except the first year of medical school is finals week stretched out over a 9-month period.

I skip a lot of lectures.

One of the great things about WesternU COMP is the flexibility to learn at your own pace and style. Even with 37 hours of lecture material, I spent only 6.5 hours actually watching any lecture (in-class or via recordings). Professors provided powerpoints that encompassed testable material and I would fill in knowledge-gaps with resources from the internet (Wiki, Harrison’s, etc.). Even though I skipped the majority of my classes, I still spent a large amount of time (51.8 hours) studying by myself. This is one of the BIGGEST changes from college where skipping class was almost always detrimental to my grade. Now, I found more success tackling the material on my own.

One major note I’ll make about this study strategy is that as the year progressed and more of our lectures became clinically-based, I gradually watched more lectures. Not watching any lectures worked out in the basic sciences. However, at this point in our systems curriculum, I do watch every lecture (although rarely in person and almost always on 2x speed) in order to help learn more of the clinical applications of the material.

I use group review to break the monotony.

All those long hours of studying in front of a computer screen can get awfully lonely. Thankfully, I’ve found a study group of 3-5 classmates who I can group-review with before the exam. The amount of time spent reviewing the material was evenly split between group-study (16.5 hours) and self-review (16 hours). There were at least a few questions I got right just because of a connection one of my study partners brought up during our review sessions. Study groups can be very hit or miss, but can be worth their weight in gold if all the members get along properly.

Not Pictured: The Revolving Glass Door of Study Styles

After a year of medical school, I’ve found my study habits changing on a class-to-class basis. As I alluded to in the data analysis, one such example is the transition from watching barely any lectures to watching almost all of them. Some other strategies I’ve toyed with during the year include drawing things out for anatomy, making concept-based tables for biochemistry, self-quizzing with flashcards for pharmacology, making up patient presentations for neurology, and making absurd mnemonics for everything in between. Over the next few months, I’ll be going over a few of these study strategies on WhiteCoatDO.

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  1. […] between 15-20 testable details in each lecture making for 525-700 items to learn for each exam. Tracking the hours I spent studying for an exam showed I was spending about 75 hours in order to memorize up to 700 testable points. […]

  2. MD2015
    MD2015 November 22, 2013

    This is absolutely ridiculous. If the average student spent this much time studying, students would consistently fail SHELF exams, good thing they don’t. It is so important to be efficient! Learn to recognize what is important and likely will be tested vs just spending an inordinate amount of time going over lecture and notes over and over again. Learn to be a good test taker, develop good reasoning skills. Then you will do just as well on your exams as you are now if not better. Spending this much time studying, you hopefully are destroying exams and not just fighting to be average or worse just passing. You will not have this kind of time to study when you’re on a medicine or surgery rotation working 6-6.

    • Ryan Nguyen
      Ryan Nguyen December 26, 2013

      Hey MD2015! This was a breakdown of my study time for an exam during my first year of medical school, not while on the wards. I don’t expect to be studying anywhere near this much come rotations time, heck I’m not even sure how 3rd and 4th years can pull off even light reading at the end of long shift. I also completely agree with you about finding what are the testable and high-yield concepts from lecture, it’s definitely a skill I’ve been working on developing as I’m gearing up for Step 1.

      However, I’m wondering why you deemed the 4.8h/day I averaged out to be “too much” studying for a typical first-year student? Between classes, self-review, and group-review, I found about 5h/day of studying to be a good balance between studying hard during the day and relaxing at night.

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