July 29, 2022

Back-to-School Study Strategies

Abrahim N. Razzak, BS, MS2, Medical College of Wisconsin

Medical school is a time filled with learning, memorizing, practicing and presenting. However, it can also be described as “drinking from the firehose” with limited time and extensive breadth of knowledge to cover. In this article, we will go over a few effective study strategies supported by literature to increase efficiency.

The first study strategy is establishing a healthy routine of at least 7–8 hours of sleep each day, time for exercise and a healthy diet. This tip may be one of the most important and one of the hardest to master as a medical student. However, there have been numerous studies identifying these factors as contributing to better learning and productivity. Sleep is a natural life mechanism meant to consolidate memories and allow for formation of brain processing networks, allowing for newfound insight toward stimuli upon waking up.1,2 There is a growing body of literature that indicates physical exercise can positively affect cognitive functioning and promote well-being.3,4 High-quality school nutrition programs have been associated with better academic performance, and students with poor-quality diets have been known to perform poorly on assessments.5 Establishing a healthy routine may also reduce levels of daytime fatigue.

Another study strategy is separating areas for work, play and sleep. Creating a separate workspace does not have to mean going to the library or coffee shop for studying — designating a certain location for a quiet workplace within the home can also be beneficial. It has also been shown that students who study in different quiet locations have improved memory recall and learning.6 Quiet locations have also been known to be effective in memory retainment.7

Additionally, active studying techniques, such as flashcards, practice questions and teaching others the material, have been shown to be more effective than passive studying techniques, such as highlighting or reading. Summarizing and text-based learning has ranked in the low-utility category, while practice testing and spaced repetition has ranked in the high-utility category for students, while repeated re-reading has limited effects from reading the first time compared to testing.8,9 Through testing, one can more efficiently identify knowledge gaps that need to be worked on.

Lastly, the Pomodoro Technique, the famous 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break cycle, has been known as a time management method to increase work conductivity. However, there has also been a report measuring it takes about 23 minutes for people to get into a focused studying mindset.10 For this, one can use an adapted version of the Pomodoro Technique with a different time interval, such as 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of break as a cycle. Alternatively, you may use a work-based schedule technique vs. a time-based technique. In this framework, you work on a specific task until you finish it, then take a break.

Studying in medical school can most definitely be a challenging and arduous process. I hope this piece provides some insight on possible study techniques you may employ moving forward.


  1. Wagner U, Gais S, Haider H, Verleger R, Born J. Sleep inspires insight. Nature. 2004;427(6972):352-355. doi:10.1038/nature02223
  2. Stickgold R. Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature. 2005;437(7063):1272-1278. doi:10.1038/nature04286
  3. Mandolesi L, Polverino A, Montuori S, et al. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Front Psychol. 2018;9:509. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509
  4. Fernandes J, Arida RM, Gomez-Pinilla F. Physical exercise as an epigenetic modulator of brain plasticity and cognition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017;80:443-456. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.06.012
  5. Florence MD, Asbridge M, Veugelers PJ. Diet quality and academic performance. J Sch Health. 2008;78(4):209-215; quiz 239-241. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00288.x
  6. Fowler A, Whitehurst K, al Omran Y, et al. How to study effectively. Int J Surg Oncol (N Y). 2017;2(6):e31. doi:10.1097/IJ9.0000000000000031
  7. Klatte M, Bergström K, Lachmann T. Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. Front Psychol. 2013;4:578. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00578
  8. Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ, Nathan MJ, Willingham DT. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2013;14(1):4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
  9. Karpicke JD, Butler AC, Roediger HL. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory. 2009;17(4):471-479. doi:10.1080/09658210802647009
  10. Mark G, Gudith D, Klocke U. The cost of interrupted work. In: Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’08. ACM Press; 2008:107. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072