As I approach the end of my second year of medical school and start thinking more about finals, step one, and third year, I am very much regretting the way I elected to study and construct notes. This regret began at the beginning of second year and has weighed on my mind since, but I was unable to change course. My method was solid, rehearsed, predictable, and working; there was too little time and too big of a risk to try out a new method.
My method was to approach each lecture (and associated powerpoints, handouts, etc), convert it to easy-to-memorize bullet points (flashcards), and then memorize it. Repeat. From discussions with my classmates, I learned many do something like this. Some memorize directly from the given material without any intermediate steps. I don’t prefer this latter approach since there is a huge signal to noise ratio in the material, and sifting through the “noise” over and over is very miserable for me. At the same time, it may be faster overall since making your own notes takes up a lot of very valuable time. That said, my method has a drawback that has taken me until now to really appreciate.
There is a high degree of redundancy in the presented material, which most, I think, find valuable. Yet I have memorized the cycle of female hormones at least five times in my life now, the genetic mutation responsible for sickle cell disease at least three times, and so on ad nauseum. Even so, I wouldn’t be able to recite this information to you now, and I need to know it for my upcoming licensing exam.
Sure, I will not have to invest much energy in relearning these and a mountain of other facts in a few weeks. My point is not that I feel unprepared, but rather that much my time has been wasted by my own note-taking methodology. My notes are organized according to class, test, and further into individual lectures with worthless headings. The amount of redundancy buried in these notes is discouraging to think about. If a professor now presented me with sickle cell again, I would create a fresh set of notes just because it would be difficult to find all the notes I have already made on the subject.
Here is an example. In your histology class fall semester you may learn about hyperprolactinemia when the pituitary is first discussed. At the time, the professor may mention that bromocriptine is a treatment, but he goes on to say you do not need to know it for the upcoming test. Nonetheless, you are ambitious, and you jot down “bromocriptine”, not really understanding anything about it, but afraid it just might be one of those “random” facts that appears on the exam, a phenomenon you are now very familiar with. In the spring the following year, you may learn about hyperprolactinemia again in physiology. This time you hear that dopamine tonically inhibits the production of prolactin, but nothing else. A full year later you learn that bromocriptine is a D2 agonist in pharmacology. Each time you have have made a completely new note, written in a completely different way under a completely different heading. This is the rule, not the exception. I estimate my notes are mostly redundant with previous notes in some way or another.
What I wish I had done, and now want you to consider, is this: a) organize all of my material by topic, not lecture or test or class. b) add to or modify existent material instead creating again de novo as it is presented. The time savings would have been enormous, and my understanding far more holistic. That said, the implementation is not an easy problem. For one, a newcomer would not know how to best organize the material. Secondly, how do you use your database once constructed?
I propose this algorithm, assuming you use a computer, which is what I would do if I could go back in time. 1) Copy the organizational structure of First Aid, a review book you will eventually become very familiar with anyway. Make sure all topics you create are searchable or otherwise easy to find (word documents nested in folders or flashcards organized into decks, etc). Diseases should be listed alphabetically. 2) When approaching a new lecture, make notes directly into the master database, editing it as needed. 3) At the same time create a copy of the relevant material for the upcoming test in a new place so that you can memorize the material without any “noise”. 4) Delete the copy after you are done with it to prevent discordant information from developing.
Your future self would thank you, but s/he probably doesn’t realize how much time s/he has saved over the last two years since s/he has been taking careful organization for granted.