07 JUL 2021
Excelling academically isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for many people during a pandemic and lockdown, and rightly so.
Lockdown is a scary period, and first priorities immediately become safety, food, shelter and other necessities low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs e.g. toilet paper.
But once we’re in the swing of things during a lockdown, as we are here in Australia, New Zealand and over half of the world, there comes the opportunity to not just survive in a lockdown, but thrive in it.
As a doctor having just started my specialist training in Radiology, I’ve been studying for my anatomy and physics exams, which just like the rest of the medical world’s exams, got cancelled because of COVID-19.
While it’s easy to become complacent during these times, this is core knowledge, and knowing it well is not only for passing my exams, but doing my job effectively to help save lives. Similarly, the study you put in now will not only help you achieve your career aspirations, but help you in every aspect of life by learning to learn more effectively.
I’ve been working on improving my learning since high school, where I was Dux at Westlake Boys High School, before continuing to optimise this through medical school on a scholarship at The University of Auckland. Along the way, I’ve shared this info with any interested students and have since helped thousands of students with their studies and hundreds get into medical school.
While it’s tempting to jump into specific study techniques, this will likely contribute less than 20% of your results. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you see it, the core steps to studying effectively are also to any productivity generally, and are much less about your study/work time than how you spend the time around it.
Sleeping enough plays a key role in learning and memory, with most of us requiring 7-9 hours of sleep per day. Now’s a great time to test your own daily requirement by not using an alarm in combination with good sleep hygiene. Once you’ve found a stable amount over 1-2 weeks, consistently aiming for that amount will keep you feeling sharp rather than groggy.
Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, helps improve your brain’s ability to learn. A simple 15 minute run around the block was my daily regime during study, and I felt the effects most acutely when I had a knee injury limiting my running for 6 weeks – my study productivity absolutely tanked during this time. A nice indoor/driveway alternative to this is skipping which also has the aerobic component.
Another aspect is food, with the time-old cliche “you are what you eat”. I certainly haven’t always been an exemplary role model here, having infamously eaten $3/day worth of spag bowl and spinach for 200 days in a far from optimal diet. A core principle to go by is eating natural foods and avoiding junk food or excess sugar. Some nutrients known to improve brain function and memory particularly include flavonoids (e.g. blueberries), choline (e.g. chicken, eggs, almonds) and omega-3 (e.g. salmon, mackerel and walnuts).
The final non-study activity is even more important during this pandemic. Before you can do any effective study, you need to massively reduce the amount of news you are exposed to. Just as you are what you eat, you are also what you read, and reading too much news is a surefire way to drive up your anxiety and freeze your ability to get anything done. Like many, I initially got sucked into all the coronavirus news but quickly noticed my productivity freeze. I find the headlines I see naturally through social media are enough to keep me up-to-date, and only read more nutritious information through my feed of blogs, websites and authors that I trust to provide more insightful content.
Now that you’ve done the most important 80% to set yourself up for success, it’s time to get stuck in. There’s an overwhelming amount of resources these days, so it’s important just to get into it without spending hours planning or choosing resources.
Stick to one resource initially (e.g. those provided by your course) and keep reading through it until you are bored or confused. It can then be good to combine with an online search or resource you have, or finding a video if still confused by the topic, given that learning via multiple modalities is more effective than one alone.
I prefer this order so that you don’t waste time learning the easy concepts in multiple modalities when one is enough.
With this new mode of hyper-acquisition, your brain will initially get fuzzy quickly. That’s a nice indicator from your brain to take a break – which will be much more frequent than you expect. And not by going on social media or reading the news, which just overwhelms the brain with more junk and reduces your ability to learn new content. Instead, try taking an actual break which doesn’t take too long: walking around the house, up and down stairs, or doing a set of pushups.
Let your brain wander and ruminate during these breaks too, it’s amazing how much our brains consolidate new information during what we might consider “unproductive” time.
Finally, make sure to summarise as you go along. Most textbooks and resources that help explain concepts are incredibly wordy – you often only need to read the concept once or twice, but then can remember it with a key word or phrase. Every time you come across a new concept, summarise it before moving on. You’ll end up with a set of notes which are very useful to you in reminding you of each of these concepts, while being useless to most others. Writing these notes by hand on paper (or with a stylus + tablet if you’re fancy) is more effective to retain the knowledge compared to typing, though if your handwriting is anything like mine it will make it a whole lot uglier.
I used to brag to my friends during high school that my notes for the year for each subject were condensed onto a single double-sided 1B5 page. I showed it off as a badge of minimal effort, but I didn’t realise at the time how pivotal it was to my academic success.
Well, I better use my self-professed techniques in summarising, shouldn’t I?
Firstly and fore-mostly, ensure your safety, health and other necessities are stable. Thankfully because of our government’s early actions, many of us in New Zealand will have this luxury in contrast to others.
The next steps which will determine the bulk of your success are simple: good sleep, daily aerobic exercise and limiting the media you consume.
Once you’ve covered the basics, you can get studying, summarising content as you go along. Practice speed reading while studying, acknowledging that it will require a lot of physical breaks for your brain to consolidate and rejuvenate.
There you have it, a path to not just cover your intended curriculum, but hopefully covering the remainder of your subjects/course to a certain level too! If you would like support with your studies on your path to medical school, get in touch with MedView’s team of admissions experts.
MedView designs bespoke packages to suit every student's needs. Whether you need MMI training, UCAT/GAMSAT tutoring, or high school curriculum support, we can help you prepare for medical school in a strategic and holistic way - and we deliver this all online. Discover the MedView Advantage today! Book a consultation with an admissions expert, who can support you on your journey to medical school.