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My 5 tips for learning preclinical medicine

Person studying with head down behind a large pile of books.

It’s May and I am hurtling towards my end-of-year exams and the placement that will mark the end of second-year, and with it, the end of my preclinical medical course. From next September, I’ll be out and about on the wards and clinics, attempting to apply the book knowledge gleaned from these first two years to real-life patients, whose symptoms and lives are likely to be much more complicated (and much more interesting) than the many abstracted ‘Mr Joneses’ who feature in the question stems of MCQs. The following are five tips, in no particular order, that I would have given to myself at the beginning of medical school at the point I was about to embark on the pre-clinical course.

Stress less

Definitely easier said than done, but for me, it has been good to remember that the chance to study medicine is a huge privilege, and that as well as challenging and difficult at times, it is supposed to be enjoyable – often, fun even. I know, it doesn’t really feel like that as I stare down the barrel of my revision timetable for my upcoming end-of-year exam. However, keeping things in perspective, and reminding myself of the fact that I am right at the beginning of a life-long journey does help to limit my stress. If you are dealing with stress that is becoming unmanageable, do seek out support from your university – there is a lot of wellbeing support out there, use it. 

Engage with the material – but don’t get too bogged down in details

One of the great frustrations of many medical students is the fact that unlike at school where everything is prescribed and  if you successfully complete enough past papers, you’ll do well, in medical school, there are no past papers. Aside from the learning outcomes, there is no one explaining exactly how much depth to go into – and this lack of clarity can become a trap into which the most diligent medical students fall by spending too long getting bogged down in the nitty gritty details of obscure pathologies before attaining a broad grasp of the basic principles that underlie all of medicine. Luckily, there is help at hand, and textbook series like At a Glance, as well as numerous medical education YouTube channels and online sessions from your very own Study Hub, will help you to understand the level of detail we need for our current stage of training. This is not to say that you shouldn’t dig into topics that particularly interest you – cultivating your interests within medicine is important and can help to direct your research interests or ideas for future specialities. But it’s important to remember that at this stage, we need to cover a wide breadth of topics, and that until medical students are each issued with a Hermione Granger-style Time-Turner, there are not currently enough hours in the day to dig into every topic at a level of detail that would be required for a PhD. 

Buddy up

Medicine is a team sport. Don’t believe me? Maybe Atul Gawande’s Ted talk is more convincing. But really, it cannot be impressed enough that the successes of the human species have all been team endeavours – and your studies are no different. Your friends on your course have a slightly different perspective on the world from you, and you will likely be amazed when you hear their inventive acronyms and mental shortcuts for remembering some of medicine’s endless facts. These are likely to resonate more with you than anything your lecturers or tutors could give you. So definitely see team studying as a fruitful resource that again will reinforce that studying can actually be fun. 

Cultivate a study PMA

What is PMA you ask? A Positive Mental Attitude. Now, in the age of a global pandemic, it might seem churlish to demand positivity, and indeed discussions around toxic positivity have highlighted the paradoxically negative impact of forcing a happy face when there doesn’t seem to be all that much to be happy about. And don’t even get me started on the self-appointed gurus of productivity who spuriously suggest that all you need to attain your goals is a sunny disposition and a bunch of positive affirmations. (Ew.) However, cultivating a positive attitude specifically towards my capacity to learn at medical school has been very important to me. The concept intuitively makes sense: it is easy to imagine that someone who feels positively about the fact that while they don’t know everything right now, they trust the process, and are sure that if they stick at it, they will incrementally improve and move closer to their goal of knowing enough to graduate medical school. This concept is called ‘affect’ and it is part of metacognition – how you think about thinking, or your attitude to how and why you learn. The more positive and motivated your metacognition, the better your learning outcomes. This is discussed in more detail by Dr Paul Penn, author of the book ‘The Psychology of Effective Studying’ on The HippoCampus Podcast and is an interesting concept to explore, particularly if you want to boost your confidence in studying at medical school.

Experiment with your learning

For most people entering the preclinical medical course, this will be the first time that you are solely responsible for deciding what to learn. Most of the work you do will not be marked by a tutor, and academic feedback will be pretty sparse. Taking the reins on your learning journey can initially be terrifying, but it can also be a liberating experience. This is your time to experiment, to try different resources, learn from friends and medical students online, and above all to make mistakes – because as scary as it sounds, it is through making mistakes that we learn. So experiment with different note-taking strategies, question banks, flashcard platforms and more. The more you learn what does and doesn’t work for you, the more you can cement the techniques that will stand you in good stead in a career that requires us to be continually curious and to never stop learning.

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