How to most effectively memorize in premedical courses

premed study skills

As an English major in undergrad, I did not have much experience with studying for tests, as I was often writing papers with little need to memorize facts or material. When I started a postbac program to complete my premedical requirements, I realized that I needed an efficient and effective way to memorize large amounts of material. Premedical courses – especially those that are largely fact-based like biology – necessitate the memorization of facts. While there are plenty of aspects of science that do not require memorization, like parts of organic chemistry and physics, even these classes have reactions, equations, and other facts that simply need to be committed to memory. This fact-based learning only increases in medical school, where courses like anatomy and pharmacology largely require pure memorization.  

Flashcards can be a useful and simple memorization tool, but there are tried and tested methods of using them most effectively. With the huge amount of material you are required to learn in premedical and medical school classes, doing every flashcard every day is not sustainable. Furthermore, if you simply go through your whole deck of cards the night before a test and never look at them again, you will likely forget the material shortly after the test. This material is important, and will likely show up again in medical school, so it’s important to learn it in a way that will be long-lasting. 

Research shows that the most effective way to commit material to long-term memory is spaced repetition over a long period of time. This means that you gradually introduce increasing time intervals between each flashcard. You’ll start by reviewing a new card every day, then every other day, and by the end you might be reviewing that card only once a month. This method not only helps you learn material in the short term through repetition, but also improves recall and ensures that you will remember it in the long term. 

Luckily, you don’t have to worry about creating a spaced repetition system yourself. There are several algorithm-based flashcard applications that do this for you. Perhaps the most well-known – especially among medical students – is called Anki. Anki is a digital application that allows you to create your own flashcards and uses an algorithm to gradually space them out for you over time. Each day you will review any new cards you added and you will also review any older cards based on the spaced repetition algorithm. When you get cards wrong or have trouble with them, you will repeat them as many times as you need that day. You’ll review those tricky cards more frequently until you feel comfortable with them, at which point they’ll start to be increasingly spaced out. Once you really know a card, you’ll likely only see it about every month.  

The key to using Anki – or any spaced repetition tool – well is to do it every day. It may sound like a lot, but because of the spaced repetition algorithm, you actually don’t have to review all of your cards every day. On the other hand, skipping even one day can mean that you have a huge amount of material to make up the next day. And skipping makes it harder to incorporate material into your long-term memory. 

Another benefit of Anki is that it’s digital, which makes it easy to study on your computer at home or, like I prefer, on your phone on the move.  

Good luck!

Emily graduated from Yale, where she majored in English and was a varsity athlete. She then worked for a technology startup and a human rights nonprofit before pursuing her MD at Columbia University.


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