Saturday, September 6, 2014

How To Study: Making Notes

how to study university medical school
It wasn't until second-year university that I figured out how I learn best: by making study notes. I've made thousands of pages of notes throughout my undergrad and medical school. Although everyone has their own ways of learning things and this may not be what works best for you, I'll share how I study in case it is helpful for anyone else. I studied this way throughout undergrad and medical school (and wish I had known to do this during high school!). It's a long post (sorry!).


The Objective

To condense each lecture (or textbook section) into a one- or two-page note. This whittles down a fat stack of lecture notes/slides into a manageable number of pages -- and those pages are all I have to study come test/exam time!

My Note-Making Supplies

Though I know making notes on the computer can be faster, I make all of my notes by hand so that I can use colours, draw diagrams, and easily format my pages however I like. I make notes on loose paper (plain or ruled); if I use printer paper I hole-punch it before I start writing (otherwise I'd punch information out, as I write to the very edges of the paper). I use blue and black pens to write my notes, and pencil to add in additional information later. I think colour is important for visual learners and I use coloured pens (I'd recommend Stabilo point 88 -- they don't bleed through paper and last forever (I've had the same set since grade 5!)) and pencil crayons.
how to study university medical school
I use highlighting judiciously (I believe highlighting everything on a page defeats the purpose). I usually use yellow (easy on the eyes and doesn't bleed through the paper); and later when I am studying my notes I use a brighter colour to highlight really important things that I know I have to learn. Finally, thanks to an abhorrence of free-hand lines instilled by my grade four teacher, I try to keep a ruler on hand as well.
how to study university medical school


When I Make Study Notes

  • If the lecturer has posted the notes before lecture: I make study notes before class (really!). Then I bring my notes to class, really listen to the lecture, and annotate them in pencil. I'm much more engaged in lecture when I've gone through the material by making notes beforehand. In medical school I spent each Sunday making notes for the week ahead.
  • If the notes have not been posted before the lecture: I make study notes after lecture, preferably on the same day.
how to study university medical school
lecture slides -- make study notes from them, then get rid of them!


How I Organize Study Notes

I have a binder for each of my classes, in which I keep my study notes. Within the binder, I paper clip notes from the same chapter together. When I pull out a blank page, I always write the class and date in the top right corner, as well as "continued" or a page number if I have multiple note pages. I start my notes with the lecture title, lecturer (if it varies), or page numbers (if I am making notes from a textbook). This way even if my notes linger in my backpack or on my bedroom floor before making it into the appropriate binder, it is never hard to figure out where they belong.


How I Make Study Notes

how to study university medical school
how to study notes

Simple Paraphrasing -- My goal is to make my study notes as concise as possible. For example, if the textbook says
"In 1869, a Russian chemist named Demitri Mendeleev came up with a way of organizing the elements that were known at the time. He set them out in order of atomic weight."
I would write in my study notes: "Demitri Mendeleev (Russian, 1869): org. elements by atomic weight."
By trying to shorten the information, I am actively processing and making sense of it in my mind, which helps me to remember it. However, I don't skimp when making notes -- because I only study from my own notes for tests and exams, if I haven't written something in my study notes I'm not going to learn it!

Definitions -- If I don't know a word I look it up and pencil in its definition.
how to study notes

Varied Colours & Fonts -- If I'm writing in blue pen I'll switch to a black (or coloured) pen for headings. I vary the size of my writing based on importance. I write in all-caps for emphasis or in "italics" (cursive) for micro-organism names.

Key Words -- I emphasize all vocabulary words (and important names, dates, etc.) by writing them in a coloured pen or underlining them with a coloured pen.

Highlighting -- I don't highlight much (because I think it defeats the purpose to have lots of stuff highlighted), but I do always highlight medications and numbers.
how to study notes

Lists -- Whenever possible, I turn sentences into point-form lists. I group similar things together to organize my lists.
how to study notes

Symbols & Abbreviations -- I abbreviate any word I can. It doesn't matter if no one else can interpret my notes -- as long as I can! I use plenty of symbols, most commonly up and down arrows for "increase" and "decrease", delta for "change", three dots for "therefore", and happy and sad faces for good and bad prognoses.

Flowcharts -- I use lots of short arrows to show the evolution of events.
how to study notes

Tables -- I use tables to compare and contrast things.

Mnemonics/Memory Aids -- If medical school has taught me anything, it's that there is a mnemonic for everything. I include them in my notes. I also think of tricks to remember things and write them in the margins.
how to study notes
how to study notes
how to study notes

Margins -- I use them for key information and the aforementioned memory aids/cartoons.
how to study notes
how to study notes
how to study notes

Diagrams -- I redraw all important diagrams from lecture slides or textbooks into my own notes, using coloured pencils to shade them. I always redraw diagrams in the clearest way possible and take out anything that is not essential. I don't think it is worthwhile printing out or photocopying diagrams -- I learn so much by redrawing them myself.

Cartoons -- Ideally my notes would be 90% cartoons and 10% words. Images stick in my mind much better than words, so I draw lots of simple pictures (I'm no artist!).




The Rare Time I Make Computer Study Notes

Every now and then I make study notes on the computer. I only make computer notes if there is little content that can be represented as diagrams or symbols. This is an example of a table with lots of drug names that was quicker and neater to type out than to write:


How I Take Notes During Lectures

If I've already made my study notes ahead of time (which is only possible if the professor has posted notes in advance), I use lecture as a "study" opportunity and try to really listen and understand. I find that I pay much better attention when the material is familiar from having just made notes on it and I'm not focused on scribbling down notes during class. During lecture I add little addenda to my study notes in pencil -- noting down extra information that the lecturer says which is not printed on the slides and starring anything that seems to be emphasized in class.

If I haven't made my study notes ahead of time (because the lectures were not posted in advance or I didn't have time) I spend lecture writing down every single thing that the lecturer says. If I have a handout with the notes or slides on it, that's great because I can spend more time listening instead of furiously trying to copy down the slides before they advance. If it does come to furious scribbling, I switch to taking notes on my laptop since I can type faster than I can (legibly) write. Later on that day I take my mess of lecture notes and rewrite them neatly and concisely as study notes.


How I Use Textbooks

If I have time after I've made my own study notes I read relevant sections of the textbook to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. I keep my study notes beside me and if there is anything I find in the textbook that clarifies or enhances my notes, I pencil it in. But let's be real here. If anyone can find the time to do this consistently you have my respect -- I know I didn't get my money's worth from my undergrad textbooks!

In high school and first-year university I made the mistake of starting with the textbook -- and getting buried in the details. It's important to start with the lecture notes and to study them primarily -- they are what will be tested. The textbook is bonus (and if you know the lecture content, you can generally do fairly well in a course without opening it).

In medical school I've used textbooks much more, as they often present information with greater clarity than my lectures (which have less continuity, as each is presented by a different physician).
how to study notes


The Pitfall of Making Study Notes

Making good study notes is a very time consuming process. Many a time I've spent so long making the perfect study notes that before I know it the exam is looming and I haven't even had time to read over the notes on which I'd laboured so long.

You might think that I would've learned the material in the process of making the notes, and it's true that I do learn a lot as I make my notes. However, until I've sat down with my notes and studied them intensively, I don't really know them. Making study notes is just preparation for studying ...the next steps are learning them and quizzing yourself!


If you're interested, here are other posts I've written about how I study:
On getting organized to study:

On studying:

How do you learn material? Do you have other ways of quizzing yourself?

19 comments:

  1. Dear God, you have the most amazing study tips for medical students EVER!
    Exactly what I needed, keep up the amazing work.

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    1. Aw thanks for the kind comment! Good luck with the studying :)

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  2. Hi! your tips are awesome!!! Your tips helped me realize that I'm such a passive studier. Thank you so much. Do you mean that you copy the powerpoints straight off as study notes before lecture? I mean the notes you made on the Sundays. Sorry for my English, it's not my mother tongue. Yes, and keep up your amazing work! // med student from Scandinavia :)

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    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting (and your English is perfect!). Passive studying works for some people, just not very well for me :) When I made notes on Sundays, I tried to condense/paraphrase/reformat the lecture Powerpoints to make them more clear. I got rid of any extra words, used symbols, and wrote things down in point forms lists as much as possible. I do the same thing when I make notes from textbooks. I'll make my next post on it to explain what I mean :)

      All the best with medical school!!

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    2. Thank you so much for the new post, made much more sense. But sometimes when I do my notes very condensed, I find that I have problem knowing what I meant in my notes after weeks or months when I'm starting to review for a midterm or semifinal/final. And then I end up making new notes from scratch, it's a bad habit I got. But I guess I have to work on it :)

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    3. Haha that happens to me occasionally as well! I'm sure you'll find a way of studying/note-making that works for you :)

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  3. This is wonderful in every way. My notes always look like a disturbing warfield with blocks of text and colors everywhere. I love how neat and organized yours are! I'm gonna have to attempt to employ this whilst studying for boards!!

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    1. Oh thanks! I'm sure your notes are pretty excellent though :) Good luck with the studying!

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  4. What's wonderful tips and detailed important things , I would really really thank you so much cause I applicated them and work for me .. but I have a problem which in making study notes , it takes a HUGE time , it makes me late .. for example in one day with 8 hours for making 3-4 pages !! .I hope help me for that problem and I am sorry for bad english ..
    My pleasure ..

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree, it takes me a huge amount of time to make study notes as well, but I don't really consider it wasted time because I am learning while making the notes (writing things down helps me to remember them). Although I spend more time making notes, I hopefully will spend less time studying closer to the exam because I already have my organized notes and am familiar with the material from having made the notes. That being said, I know making study notes doesn't work for everyone -- so if you find that it isn't helping you or is taking too much time, maybe try some other way of studying (like flashcards) or maybe just make notes for the more confusing topics! You can also cut down time by not worrying too much about pretty pictures and colours or by typing them (if that works for you!). Good luck! (By the way, I think producing 3-4 pages of notes per day is good -- it just means that you are making your notes concise, which is perfect.)

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    2. At first , thank you SO much for replying and inspire me .. in fact in the past I was studying by one of active studying methods without writing any notes . But when I study (internal medicine ) by mind maps (only cofusing or major subjects) , its clearly different (more understanding less stress near exams although spend much time ). So I decided to make notes for all subjects and you're one important reason for this positive change. I think if I am spend less amount of colours and pictures, I make more pages.
      Thank you again and again for this topics and pleasure contact .

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    3. That's so nice to hear! Thank you! All the best :)

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  5. This is just what I was looking for! Thank you for the great tips, I've definetely learnt more from this than I have looking through tons of pages on the internet

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  6. Do you rewrite your note after each class? Because if you write your note in pen during the lecture surely there would be a lot of mistakes.

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    1. Hi, I always try to write notes before class if the lecture slides have been posted in advance. Otherwise, I take notes in class (you're right, they're messy and I do write in pen), and then rewrite them as succinctly and neatly as possible as study notes. I know it's a tedious process, but just the act of rewriting/summarizing the material does help me to remember it -- and makes studying a bit easier later!

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  7. These are probably the best note-taking tips I have ever found on the internet! I'm in an accelerated high school program, and found your post extremely useful in memorizing content for fact-heavy subjects (like history and science). Your "How to Study" posts have made me a much better student. Thank you so much! I know you're going to be a great physician after residency!! :)

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    1. Such a kind comment! Thank you so much. Way to go in what sounds like a challenging program -- I'm sure you'll accomplish whatever you set out to :) All the best!

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  8. I just have to thank you on this post! I have been searching online for a long time to find the best way to take notes for my medical classes. I am almost done with the classes needed for just my certification in Medical Billing and Coding. I am thankful that I have been able to hold a 4.0 GPA, but I am finding that this session has been difficult in terms of getting everything completed on top of my job and normal household duties.

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  9. Good info, Anatomy PowerPoint Template is the main part of Medical PPT Templates get download this awesome PPT Backgrounds for you seminar or presentation

    ReplyDelete

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