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Old 06-11-2011
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Arrow How to study Actively for the USMLE

How to Study Actively

One of the most common problems when people are studying for long periods of time is that they fall into passive, almost mindless mental habits. Eyes dutifully move over the lines of print, but not much goes into long term memory. Even worse, if the information is being reviewed, it already looks familiar, so you can easily fool yourself into thinking 'Yes--I remember this--I know how this works.' Unfortunately, following along when the information is all laid out on the page and being able to call the relevant information from memory when you are dealing with a question on that material later are not the same thing. Even when you know a lot, you may apply the wrong information to an item, or get confused about what applies from what you recall. Here are some tactics that you can use to study more actively, which all require doing something with the information, rather than simply reading through it with the intention to remember.

Look over some practice questions on a topic you are about to review first.
If it's been a while since you studied a topic, you may not actually be able to answer the items yet, but just reading the question, to get a clear sense of what's being asked is your goal here. After you finish looking at the items, traces of what was called for by the items will linger in your memory, making the question-relevant information jump out once you begin reviewing this content.

Make key aspects and relationships stand out in your study notes.
Most people take notes when they review. But if you aren't careful, it's easy to just write down without really thinking about the information. To make those study notes really work for you, take a few minutes to look over the kind of material you are about to review. Is it describing several disorders that present similarly? Are there key lab tests that tell you which disorder you are dealing with? Do the disorders hit different groups of patients (the very young, post-menopausal women, certain ethnic groups, for example)? Can you generate a way to compare and contrast the varieties of disorders, showing how they are similar and different from each other? Once you have a clearer sense of the kind of information you are dealing with, decide how to represent the key aspects on paper in a way that highlights these aspects. Techniques for doing this can include:
1. Using boxes with arrows to show the ordered steps of a process or sequence of events.
2. Color highlighting your notes, e.g., pink for lab data information, blue for presenting symptoms, yellow for incidence (who gets it), green for morphological changes, etc. Now when you look over pages of notes, you can scan all the pink to see how the anemias differ in terms of their labs, for example.
3. Use a tape recorder to make summary notes instead of paper. You can even ask yourself questions, leaving a pause after for later listening and self-quizzing. By forcing yourself to articulate what you want to remember in your own words, you are more likely to remember the key points and you have a portable study aid to plug into later, in the car stereo while you are driving or using a Walkman to listen to while you do chores or take a walk.
4. Make charts of related groups, such as the types of meningitis. Rows for each type, columns to show the bug, presenting findings, typical lab results, prognosis, etc. Color code as necessary to make exceptions and shared features and key aspects stand out.

Switch activities to stay mentally alert.
If you are sitting at your study table and find that you are just spinning your mental gears, stop what you are doing and do something else. You might switch to a different kind of material as a break (shift from internal medicine to psychiatry, or from Microbiology to Physiology, for example). Look at a clinical website on the study topic for a change of pace. You can also try doing a few practice items on the material, then look up the related material in your review source to understand the correct and each incorrect answer. Now, what you read is relevant to an actual question and this will help you take in the information because it is perceived as more meaningful than just reading page after page in the book.

Find a study partner to do questions out loud.
If you are enrolled in a Kaplan Center, find someone who is willing to sit with you for an hour or two several times a week. Agree in advance what topic you want to focus on, then take turns doing items out loud, reading the stem out loud, stating what you think is being asked, and talking through your reasoning as you evaluate all the possible answer choices. The other person should listen for reading or reasoning mistakes and give feedback. Then switch roles and you give the feedback. Don't get bogged down in fine details while dong this, however. The goal of the session is to refine how you interpret and reason with what you already know, not to worry about checking out every little detail. Use the question explanations when you get stuck because neither of you recalls, or just skip that question and move on. This is an excellent way to practice applying what you know and to improve your accuracy in understanding and reasoning through test questions.
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