Six Science-Backed Study Strategies for the USMLE Step 1​

Last Updated on August 24, 2020 by Laura Turner

Today, the stakes are higher than ever to absorb as much information as possible during med school. Passing exams is great, but we need to be ready when we’re called into action — as many recent graduates are discovering.

While college prepares us for the material we learn in med school, it doesn’t necessarily prepare us for the speed at which that information is presented or how quickly we have to learn it. For example, the enzymes and products of the Krebs cycle are the same regardless of your learning level. The difference is that you might have had two weeks to learn this information in college. In med school, you may have one day.

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Similarly, many of us were able to get away with putting off studying until the last minute — and perhaps pulling all-nighters — for college exams. However, this is much more difficult to do when studying for the USMLE Step 1 exam.

Additionally, it can be a challenge to balance regular curriculum work with Step 1 studying. Students often don’t know how much time to dedicate to each task, which causes them to struggle to create a unified study schedule. In reality, Step 1 studying is not separate from med school studying. While studying for med school classes, you can review the same material in the First Aid for USMLE Step 1 to complete both simultaneously. Doing First Aid questions will also help you learn content for medical school.

While adjusting your study habits and absorbing information quicker than ever before is a challenge, there’s no need to panic if you find yourself falling behind at the beginning of your med school journey. There’s still time to learn effective study strategies for medical students that will help you succeed on the USMLE Step 1 exam.

Tips for New Medical Students

Many new students lose sight of the bigger picture when studying for Step 1. They view it as an obstacle in their path rather than an opportunity to prepare for the future. The knowledge that you acquire while studying for this exam will help you to succeed in clinical rotations during your third year and in your future as a practicing clinician. While the specifics of the questions may not be something that you will see again in practice, the structure of the questions – reading a description, coming up with a diagnosis, and then going from that to recommending a treatment – is what you will do daily as a physician.

You’ll have to explain complex information to patients and their families every day in the field, but you must describe it in a way that they’ll be able to grasp. The greater understanding you have of basic science and pathophysiology, the easier it will be to talk to patients about their illnesses and empower them to make complicated medical decisions about their health. If you’re able to set a solid foundation when studying for Step 1 using effective study techniques, then this will set the path for success in your clinical rotations, board exams, and beyond.

Take the time to learn how to study well in medical school and develop key strategies early on. This will enable you to use them throughout your career. Because there is such a large volume of information thrown at you, proper organization is the most important way to stay on top of everything. As you begin your Step 1 studying, do not be afraid to try new and unique learning strategies for medical students. You may find that these are more helpful than your tried-and-true methods from undergrad.

For example, I hated using flashcards in college. When I started medical school, however, I found that my favorite study strategies weren’t yielding the desired results. I worked to overcome my dislike and started to use flashcards to make the information more digestible. Ultimately, flashcards became my go-to tool when I was studying for Step 1 and other exams. Get organized and try as many resources and study strategies as possible early. Then you can choose the ones that work best for you while you figure out how to learn effectively in medical school.

Science-Based Study Techniques for Medical Students

There are many resources and study tips for medical students, and studying for Step 1 — and medical school — can be overwhelming. The key is to focus on what works for you instead of doing what works for anybody else.

While you’re probably familiar with the following study techniques for medical students, you might not know the science behind each one. Here’s how to make sure you’re practicing each strategy in the best way to help you succeed on the USMLE Step 1 and beyond:

1. Make a schedule in tune with your circadian rhythm.

I cannot stress how important this strategy is when learning how to study well in medical school — and for Step 1. Your regular classes and exams keep you busy, but it’s also important to make sure you hit your study goals each week to stay on track. The first thing you should do when creating a schedule is to identify your circadian rhythm to understand when you’re most productive during the day. Your body and mind will work best if they can naturally follow a daily cycle.

For example, mental performance tends to crest in the late afternoon. As a result, you might consider doing comprehension-type studying around that time. Reading speed also tends to decrease at that same time, so you wouldn’t want to focus on reviewing your textbooks or study guides in the late afternoon. It’s also important to note that while short-term memory is best in the morning, long-term memory functions better later in the day. You may have to do some trial and error to figure out how to learn effectively in medical school using a circadian schedule — and that schedule may change over time.

2. Start studying early.

One of the most common questions new med students have is,” When should I start studying for Step 1?” The answer is simple: As early as possible, preferably during your first year of medical school. Incorporating these study methods for medical school early in your journey will allow them to become second nature in your daily routine and keep you from playing catch-up.

Memory capacity varies from student to student, but studies suggest that the average working memory capacity is three to five items. This means that it’s more beneficial to break down a big project — like studying for the USMLE Step 1 — into smaller pieces. The best way you can do this is by starting early rather than cramming all the information at once right before the exam. Step 1 is a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Practice spaced repetition.

One of the best study strategies for your medical school journey and Step 1 studying is online flashcard tools, especially those that use a spaced repetition algorithm that ensures you are revisiting previously learned content. Flashcards also engage your active recall, which has been proven to help with memorization because it creates stronger neuron connections. Whether it’s an online tool, handwritten flash cards, or something else, you must find a way to revisit old material consistently to reinforce concepts and important information. That way, it stays with you through the study process.

In fact, research shows that repeating something 20 times in a single day is less effective than if you did it 10 times over a week. The brain needs that time to make the synaptic connections that will convert short-term information into long-term memory.

4. Use mnemonic devices.

You’ll have to retain a massive amount of information in a short amount of time for regular classes and Step 1 prep. One of the best learning strategies for medical students trying to master this information is to use mnemonic devices. What’s more, mnemonics are often used in the hospital setting.

These may make you think of grade school studying, but they work quite well when you’re trying to memorize something quickly. You can create a mnemonic device that works best for you, whether it’s an acronym, a song, a rhyme, etc., or you can look up common medical school mnemonics and learn those — and there are plenty of them! For example, you can use AEIOU to remember the indications for dialysis in patients with acute kidney injury.

One study found that students who used keyword mnemonics (i.e., using imagery to make connections between words and concepts) did better than those who didn’t when tested right after studying. This shows that mnemonics can be effective for short-term memory retention.

5. Do practice questions — and more practice questions.

Regardless of your preferred learning method, you’ll need to do as many high-quality practice questions as possible. It’s one thing to know facts and concepts, but it’s another matter entirely to understand how these facts and concepts present themselves in a clinical vignette.

Practice questions are an effective study technique because they allow medical students to form synaptic connections between a concept and how it’s commonly tested on Step 1. Frequent work with practice questions will cause those connections to grow stronger, and the information will more easily move to long-term memory.

Don’t get discouraged if you get questions wrong — you’ll learn better that way. Recent findings show that trial and error and making mistakes while you study helps rather than hurts. However, that’s only if you review the material before answering the questions and review your incorrect answers afterward. Even if you’re wrong, your response should be on the right track. If you go in blindly and give an answer that’s miles away from the right one, then it can be more challenging to learn the correct information.

6. Take regular breaks.

One of the best study techniques for medical students — and the one that is often overlooked — is taking breaks. Time away from studying is not only good for your sanity, but it also helps to improve your performance. One study has even suggested that nonstop attention on a single task ends up hampering performance. That same study showed that even short breaks during studying can significantly improve focus.

Contrary to popular belief, your brain is not just sitting idle during that time. During a break, your mind can better process and make sense of the information you were studying. Everything comes down to balance and a schedule. You don’t want to take so many breaks that you don’t study enough, but you also don’t want to work nonstop. Everyone is different, but I would suggest taking a break of 15 to 20 minutes every hour or so.

The USMLE Step 1 is a big exam, but it’s also great motivation to study hard and learn for the future. While using these study strategies for Step 1, keep your end goals in mind and remember why you decided to pursue a career in medicine in the first place: to make a difference in the lives of patients and their families.

1 thought on “Six Science-Backed Study Strategies for the USMLE Step 1​”

  1. Great tips. There is something called The Forgetting Curve postulated by Hermann Ebbinghaus that highlights the importance of spaced repetition. We forget 90% of what we learn within 3 days if we don’t review the information. But by just doing a few quick reviews on the proceeding days, we will retain the info much better, and the rate at which we forget the initial information slows down tremendously.

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