Today we're going to go through 9 evidence-based study techniques that helped me to rank first in my postgraduate surgical exams while working full time as a doctor and also building a 7-figure business.
The Reverse Study Timetable
Tip number one is called the reverse study timetable. In med school I wrote a normal study timetable with subject A one week then subject B the next week. When studying for exams around a busy day job I wrote my timetable differently. I used what I called the reverse study timetable.
While mediocre and bad students put in first when they are going to study, the top students put in when they're NOT gonna study.
As I was working a full time job and building a business I modelled studying around my life, not the other way around.
This meant that I prioritized time for relaxing, socializing and running my business. When it came to planning my study schedule I used reverse planning starting from the curriculum and working backwards identifying the most challenging topics and putting those first.
When it comes to studying we tend to think sacrificing everything and working for long hours is the best way to manage our time but this is actually counterintuitive. By taking breaks, looking after ourselves and managing our time effectively we're more likely to retain what we're learning.
2. Resource Strategy
Tip number 2 is all about being strategic with the resources we're using to revise from. As a professional learner I didn’t have time to be reading through every single book recommendation on the surgical exam reading list. Most textbooks are enormous and we're often overwhelmed with information from online lectures to textbooks and our own notes.
I therefore prioritized doing practice exams and past papers to be focused with my time. There is a tonne of evidence around the benefit of active recall as a study method and spending time identifying an online question bank that provides realistic questions in the format of the final exam at an appropriate difficulty is time well spent.
The best online question banks and study apps now have AI tutors built in that can help us to more quickly understand difficult concepts and avoid application switching. Being strategic with the resources you use to study and selecting the best ones is
3. Survey In Sprints
Tip number 3 is something called survey in sprints and it's all about building context around what we're learning before we actually begin.
Whether I'm diving directly into questions, reading a book or looking through the exam syllabus I'll review all of the material at a superficial level first so that I know what is coming up and what may be hard. I'll do this right at the start of planning my study timetable and I'll also do this at the start of each study session. And I'll do this in sprints.
For example I might first survey and skim over the whole curriculum or book chapter in one sprint which might take me 10-minutes. When I then come to revise a specific topic or chapter of a book I'll again start with a sprint to quickly survey everything in that chapter.
If I'm going directly to a question bank I might skim through a bunch of questions without worrying about whether I get them right or wrong to just survey the content and how it relates to my existing knowledge.
As I do this I focus on the structure initially and try and identify anything related to things I already know. I can then focus on the fine details later.
Surveying isn't complicated it is just skimming through any learning materials as a kind of first pass to allow our brains to begin building context which is the main thing that helps with effective encoding of what we're learning.
Tip 4 is priming our knowledge and it's the second, deeper pass after we have quickly surveyed what we're learning.
When we're priming we want to create a scaffold or foundation for our understanding. Our goal is to have a broad understanding of the entire topic we're studying with relevant points linking to things we already know to help our brains organize any new information.
To look at this practically after I have spent the first 5-minutes of a study session skimming through and surveying the content I'll be learning at a superficial level I'll now prime my knowledge by spending another 5 to 10-minutes thinking more deeply about this content and I'll focus on building a basic organizational structure in my brain. In simple terms I'll just be thinking about what the main concepts are and how these relate to what I already know. I'll also be thinking about what I have no clue about to identify any knowledge gaps.
All of this primes our brains for deeper more meaningful learning rather than just encountering a new concept for the first time and hen struggling with it because we haven't taken the time to consider where it fits into the wider subject we are learning and our existing knowledge.
5. Build Knowledge Over Time
This brings us to tip number 5 which is to build knowledge over time and increase in complexity with every iteration. Learning is a journey and the best thing about learning is that it doesn't matter if we get something wrong. In fact according to research the things we get wrong are the things we're most likely to remember.
When I was at medical school one of the key things I noticed that the top performing students did differently to everyone else was that they weren't afraid to jump right into self-testing even if they hadn't read around a topic first.
By going over and over active recall questions and forcing ourselves to understand topics more deeply we gradually build up layers of understanding around a topic adding on more complexity each time.
As learning is a journey one hack that I absolutely love is to choose the path of most relevance. We can spend our time learning anything but our time is best spent studying those high yield topics that will come up regularly at exams.
When I studied for surgical exams I went over those high yield topics multiple times and prioritised them over everything else.
6. Boost Engagement
Tip 6 is to improve the quality of our time spent studying by boosting our engagement with what we're learning.
Our grades are a byproduct of our quality of work and our quality of work is a function of 2 factors: our ability to focus and our ability to be consistent.
In order to maximize our ability to focus we need to beat distractions and get into a flow state. If we want to stay consistent we need to stay healthy and keep our energy levels up.
Whether I'm in class, an online lecture or studying by myself. I'll try and challenge myself to think "what am I doing to increase my effectiveness in this primary learning event?"
And for me this comes down to two things. Firstly it's about how we make the content interesting and relevant to us even if it’s boring. And secondly it's how we look after our health so we are energized and focused to maximise our ability to learn effectively.
When it comes to eating well, staying healthy and being energised I'll prioritize these when creating my study timetable.
To make things relevant and interesting I'll often try and link what I'm learning to something I'm genuinely interested. I might do this by asking ChatGPT to give me examples of what I'm learning in real life or if I'm learning something like history ask ChatGPT to act like a famous historical figure.
Failing that I'll try and turn the study session into a game by challenging myself to get a set number of active recall questions correct which works really well if you're using a gamified online question system.
Tip number 7 is one of the most important study tips and it's to focus on understanding rather than trying to memorize facts.
If we deeply understand a topic and we can work out the answer we can deal with most questions that come up. Memorization is helpful as a very basic first step for things like language vocab but for everything else I would always prioritize understanding.
There are two really helpful tools that I tend to use that massively help when it comes to understanding a topic.
The first is a quick sense check using the Feynman Technique. I'll get to the end of a topic and then close my book and challenge myself to explain the topic back in simple terms. If I can do this it's a good indicator that I understand elements of the topic and if I can't I need to go back to the source material or ask ChatGPT to help explain things to me more clearly.
The second tool is Bloom's Taxonomy. As I progress through questions from past papers I'll ask myself whether I can effectively apply and evaluate concepts I have learned and whether I can create a solution based on my understanding of the concepts.
If I can't I could ask ChatGPT to set me a challenge using a prompt that maps to Blooms Taxonomy.
I am learning about hypertension in medicine give me a question or task that maps to the create section of blooms taxonomy to test my understanding.
Design and propose a comprehensive community health program that addresses the prevention, early detection, and management of hypertension. Include specific strategies, resources, and interventions targeted towards different population groups to effectively combat this public health issue.
8. Do Hard Things First
When we're studying for exams, there's a very easy temptation to focus on the things that we are good at.
So people invariably revise chapter one and chapter two of everything far more than chapters 19 and 20 at the back of the book.
For me when I'm working through topics I will either track my progress in an online question bank to see what topics I'm struggling with or in med school I used a spaced revision system with traffic light color system to highlight what I needed to work on.
And really, the point of the color coding system is that it really helps us target our specific weaknesses. Like if you know you're really good at math and you know you suck at geography like I did in school. There's no point spending ages focusing on math or spending exactly the same amount of time focusing on math and geography.
Whether this is early in the day or whether it is sooner in our revision schedule we need to attack the difficult topics first.
9. Learn For Yourself
Tip 9 is a reminder that we're not learning for anyone other than ourselves. I've had to sit exams in medicine I felt were pointless but at the end of the day whether we're studying for exams or learning to improve ourselves we need to treat learning as importantly as we do our health or our jobs. And this means blocking out time for learning and putting in the effort even when it might feel like a chore.
I love getting things wrong and I love learning as I know I am growing as a person. It's the same as going to the gym. Some days I might be tired or not want to go but I know that if I show up I'll feel better for it and by taking action I'm more likely to succeed in the long term.
If we take ownership of our studying and learning we're much more likely to study effectively.