Saturday, September 13, 2014

How To Study: Quizzing Yourself

how to study university medical school
Last week I wrote about the first step in my studying process: making study notes. I see that as just preparation for studying. The next step is actually learning the content of those notes. Different people learn things by different means; here's what works for me:

  1. READING MY STUDY NOTES -- I put this first, but don't really think it's the most productive way to learn. Why? Reading on its own is passive (if you've ever read a page and then realized you had no idea what you'd just read, you know what I mean). To keep my mind from wandering, I always couple reading with the next few things.
  2. WHITEBOARDS -- To stay engaged in studying my notes and to make sure I'm really learning them, I quiz myself constantly. Because I remember things visually, the best way for me to do this is by writing them out.
    how to study quizzing yourself
    During med school I spent a lot of study time in empty classrooms, with my notes in one hand and a whiteboard pen in the other (or piece of chalk depending on which building I was in!). I would tackle a section at a time, writing out the notes and drawing the diagrams without looking at the paper, then checking against the paper and correcting the whiteboard. Next I would step back and read the board a second time. Finally I would use erasing the board as a third quizzing opportunity, pausing before erasing each phrase to make sure I had learned it. At home, a windowpane served as my whiteboard (I even stuck white paper on the outside of the window; at the risk of neighbours thinking I was insane...or running a grow-op).
  3. SCRAP PAPER -- When studying in the library, I use scrap paper in the same way I would a whiteboard.
    how to study quizzing yourself
  4. ACTIVE STUDYING -- ...And when I have neither a whiteboard nor scrap paper, I still practice "active" studying (as versus "passive" reading) by stopping after reading each section of my notes, covering it, and forcing myself to list in my head what I had just read. If I can't reiterate it to myself, I read it again and repeat the process until I can. I can't emphasize how important "active" studying is. Sometimes when I'm feeling lazy I convince myself that I can learn curled up with a textbook on the couch; really though, I know I'll retain only a fraction of what I would have had I used that time to study actively.
  5. FLASHCARDS -- Only rarely do I use flashcards (probably because I find the next thing on this list, folded paper, more convenient). I did find flashcards useful for organic chemistry, microorganisms, cranial nerves, and ECG rhythms. I looked at them on the bus and during breaks at my job. When I got bored of studying from my notes, I would do some flashcards to switch things up.
  6. FOLDED PAPER -- Folded paper is an alternative to flashcards that is cheaper (15 pages for 1 cent!) and more transportable (one sheet is the equivalent of a 50-card stack). I started using folded paper in Grade 6 to learn my weekly spelling list (my parents were probably happy I stopped pestering them to read the words out to me). I took a sheet of lined paper and creased it lengthwise, about two inches from the right edge.
    how to study quizzing yourself
    To the right of the crease I wrote my list of spelling words and on the same line to the left of the crease I drew a little cartoon representing the word. To quiz myself I folded along the crease to hide the spelling words, looked at the cartoons, and wrote the corresponding words out on a scrap piece of paper (Pictionary-esque). Then I unfolded the paper to check my spelling. 
    I used the same method to learn French vocabulary in high school, writing the English words on the left side of the page and the French words on the right beneath the flap.
    how to study quizzing yourself
    how to study quizzing yourself
    In medical school I wrote questions and answers out for each of the weekly "learning objectives". Since these answers took up more space, I creased the paper in the centre. Essentially, I was creating lists of all the questions that could be asked on exams -- and their answers!
    how to study quizzing yourself
    how to study quizzing yourself
  7. QUIZZES -- In high school and medical school I found that quiz questions were often repeated on unit tests or exams. As part of my studying I redid the quizzes repeatedly (covering the answers or writing the questions and answers on folded paper if it was a computer quiz) until I could answer all of the questions.
  8. PRACTICE QUESTIONS -- When available, I do as many practice questions as possible. In high school I downloaded old provincial exams and went through hundreds of questions. In medical school I went through question and answer books and online question banks.
    how to study quizzing yourself canada qbank usmle
    one of many questions I got wrong
    I get tons of these questions wrong -- but that's how I learn from them, so that hopefully I'll get them right the next time. Getting all of the questions right doesn't teach you anything, so don't be discouraged if you're getting them wrong -- in terms of studying, I think that's a good thing!
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?


  1. hi...its really amazing and great effort.keep it up

  2. Thank you for this entire section of study tips! I found it really helpful. You are a life saver :-)

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your study tips :)

  4. Replies
    1. Hi Christine! I haven't tried ANKI, but I know some people love it. I guess it depends on whether you prefer electronic or paper flashcards? Electronic flashcards do seem easier to set up and more accessible to study from, but I suppose some people might find that they learn more in writing the cards out by hand. I'm not sure which I'd prefer. I'd love to hear your thoughts on ANKI if you've tried it!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing your tips! What Question and Answer books, and Qbanks did you find useful? :)

    1. Hi Shanna, I found USMLE World and Canada QBank helpful, but they're a bit expensive -- I'm not sure I'd bother paying for a subscription unless I'd feel like I'd use it enough to make it worthwhile (like leading up to a USMLE, if you're writing those). As for books, I used whatever I could find online or at the library -- First Aid, Kaplan, and NMS for the most part. Good luck!


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