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Advisor corner: Effective study skills of successful students

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Developing good study habits and skills is important for you to be academically successful. But what types of skills do the most successful students demonstrate? We asked four pre-health advisors to share what study skills they feel are most critical for students to be successful in their premed coursework and for lifelong learning.

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The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to evaluate old habits and try new things. And if your old study habits aren’t hacking it or you are looking for new skills, it could be time for a change. Developing effective study skills and habits will help you not only be successful in your current but also be successful when you get to medical school. We asked four pre-health advisors about what study skills they feel are the most critical to help students succeed in their premed classes.

Francie Cuffney, Department Head of Biological Sciences at Meredith College and President of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP)

Part of the college experience, especially when preparing for a career in medicine, is realizing that classes are not about checking off a prerequisite but actually learning and mastering the material. A student could be successful in a course but not have effectively learned the material for later application. Being engaged with course material will help you retain information. Three top active-learning strategies are:

  1. Reviewing course work daily, as close to the end of class as possible.
  2. Writing things out in your own words — during class, in your review notes, on flash cards. Taking pictures of PowerPoint slides does not help you retain information, but writing the information down does. And those flash cards will help you during your daily review of your work! Keep them with you and flip through them for a few minutes every now and then.
  3. Studying in groups so that you can interact with and teach others — explaining a concept to someone else is one of the best ways to develop mastery of a topic.

Using these three common strategies can help you be successful in your classes, which will help you stay motivated and confident in your preparation for medical school. Stay in the mindset of taking these classes to build your foundation for your career — you’re taking these classes because you want to help your future patients, not just because you must take them.

Carol Baffi-Dugan, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Advising and Director for Health Professions Advising at Tufts University

One thing is true of all my premed students who are successful — they study hard! But they also study smart. Almost all of them realize the value of working with a study buddy or a small study group. That is not to say that you never study alone; you need to do work on your own as well. But working with a partner or small group has several benefits. Because the group comes together to discuss the material, it provides a level of accountability for each member, since you must come prepared and read the material in advance or do the problem sets. Further, when you study with someone else, you not only read the material, but you speak it out loud and hear it. You may be able to explain something to them that they don’t understand and vice versa. Also, you can come prepared with tough potential test questions you have written on the material and they can do likewise as you exchange questions.

Besides this being a great approach to studying, the thing I like best is that I see my students beginning to understand the great value of teamwork, a skill they will need to be successful physicians.

Julie Chanatry, Chairperson of the Health Sciences Advisory Committee and Chemistry Instructor at Colgate University

My successful students quickly recognized that what worked for them in high school very often does not work for them in college. Using time efficiently and taking care of their health play a large part in their academic success.

Staying healthy is an obvious but often neglected factor that helps foster success. That means making sure that one is getting enough sleep and exercise and eating a balanced diet. When we’re sleepy, it negatively affects focus, attention, and concentration, so being well rested can enhance academic performance. To achieve adequate sleep, students that are successful keep a regular study schedule — they don’t disrupt their sleep pattern by “cramming” late into the night. They tend to turn off their electronics earlier in the evening (at least 60 minutes before they want to go to sleep) and they also eliminate or cut down on caffeine, particularly three to five hours before they want to fall asleep. Successful students consistently report that good time management and taking care of their health have played a large part in their academic success.

Kirsten Peterson, Director of Pre-Professional Studies and Instructor in Global Health Studies, Allegheny College:

Polling my most successful students about their study skills, I found that their habits fell into three categories: reading, reviewing, and requesting help.

  • Reading: Read the book, even if it is optional, and even if specific pages are not assigned. The book will present material in a different manner from the professor. Thus, you get a slightly different explanation of the concepts and additional examples to illustrate points. Take advantage of the practice problems and review questions. If you cannot do a problem, you can pinpoint an area in which you need help. Internet resources such as the Khan Academy can also be useful.
  • Reviewing: Rewriting notes and making a study guide before tests are two excellent methods of study. For kinesthetic learners, the sheer act of rewriting notes can embed information. Any type of learner, however, will benefit from putting lecture notes into their own words. Doing so will point out the concepts that are not clear. There are many ways to take notes, but one way that is especially effective is the Cornell Notes system. Further, making a study guide, preferably well in advance of a test, helps you organize ideas into ways that make the most sense to you. And try to make connections to other courses. Connections anchor information that, in isolation, might be forgotten quickly.
  • Requesting help: No one can know everything. Ask questions. Go to professors’ office hours. Talk to TAs and tutors. Study with a trusted peer or small group. Explain concepts to another person. If you can explain it, you probably understand it well. If not, then you have discovered an area to review. Try to be specific in your needs. Which step in a mechanism, for example, does not make sense? Talking to professors has the added benefit of helping them get to know you.

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