How to Take Notes (& Study Them) in Medical School

In spite of the title, this is not intended to be the definitive discussion of how to take notes in medical school; this is simply a run-down of the method I use. It is a mix of typed notes and hand-written notes; finding the balance between these is essential. It’s important to hand-write certain important details or high yield points insofar as physically writing things down improves retention. However, it is equally important to have a central database of your notes that you can easily search when you need to look something up. Both methods serve as a means of passively and rapidly reviewing material at the end of a long day when your capacity for doing practice questions has all but expired.

Google Sheets

Purpose: Record key points from practice questions; central database for notes.

I created one document for internal medicine with a separate sheet for each speciality within the document. I prefer to color code the sheets; this may have a negligible impact on retention, but at least my notes are more aesthetically pleasing. Google Sheets is useful for searching for information when doing practice questions, and serves as a central database for my notes. I can access it from any device whether I have my MacBook or not. And as it saves automatically, that’s simply one less thing to worry about.

Small notebook 5″ x 8″

Purpose: Write down key associations or high yield notes for rapid review the night before an exam 

While it is too time consuming to write every detail from a reading or the key point underpinning ever practice question, it is essential to discern between bits of information which are high yield enough to warrant hand-writing. I use a fresh notebook for each shelf exam. This tool is useful for rapid review in the days leading up to an exam, and will also be useful to review for Step.

Stenographer Notebook 6″ x 9″

Purpose: comparing two diagnoses; rapid review the night before an exam

In my opinion, steno pads are underutilized in the 21st century. The two columns could be useful in an infinite number of ways, but in the scope of medicine, they are perhaps best utilized in order to compare two (or more) diagnoses. When doing practice questions, it is a commonly encountered problem to find two answer choices that are difficult to decide between. Often times, the difference between the two choices is one or two key details that distinguish the correct answer from the wrong one. The steno pad is useful for comparing two such diagnoses, those that may be easily confused with one another or that have similar presentations that differ by only one or two details. This is especially useful for rapid review the night before an exam.

Anki

Purpose: create flashcards

There are probably superior flashcard apps, and I personally find Anki somewhat detestable aesthetically, but I use it anyway as it gets the job done. The cloze deletions are the most useful feature allowing you to create fill-in-the-blank style questions. It is essential to be pragmatic in your approach to creating flashcards. If you create flashcards for every damn thing, you will have so many flashcards, you won’t have time to study them. I only create flashcards based off of questions I have missed more than once or to capture a particularly high yield topic, such as the derangements in the different types of shock. In other words, I primarily use flashcards towards the end of my studying, after I have completed all of my practice questions and am reviewing the ones I missed. If I miss them again, I create a flashcard reiterating the key detail of the question that I forgot. However, I do use them throughout my study as well, for example to study the deficits involved in different spinal cord injuries.

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