Med students are inundated with complex information every day. Learning and understanding that information can be a struggle, especially if you’re not used to the time it takes to truly comprehend the material. In comparison to your undergraduate courses, you may be learning a semester’s worth of material in one week!
While it may be tempting to memorize all that information, comprehension is equally — if not more — important. The difference lies in your ability to take different sources of related information and apply them in real-world settings, such as during your clerkships or with a patient in your private practice. You may have memorized the parts of the diaphragm, for example, but do you understand what each one does and how they work together to form a diagnosis?
It’s very normal to feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading and studying you have to do in med school, all so you can understand the topics you’ll be tested on and will need to know as a physician. Luckily, there are some simple ways to improve comprehension skills that don’t take much extra effort on your part. Keep in mind, building comprehension skills still takes practice and regular review. Once you have it down, though, active comprehension will come naturally.
Strategies to Improve Comprehension Skills
As with any other learning skill, there are specific strategies to improve comprehension:
Every med student knows that medical books are dry. They’re often written at a high-level and contain far more information than you need. Nevertheless, they — and other online texts — are a resource to help with comprehension skills. But it will take more than reading and rereading. Instead, active reading is the way to go. It can be done in different ways, but the gist is to engage your brain and force it to interact with the text before, during, and after you read.
The first step in active reading is to preview the text: look at the headings, subheadings, the diagrams and figures before you begin reading. This will make a mental map your mind can follow while you read. Next, while you read, stop after every section and summarize what you just read without re-reading. You can also pause intermittently to annotate and ask high-level questions (bonus: you can use these questions as a self-test later!). Finally, self-assess a day or two later, and when you find gaps, either re-read the section that is unclear or find other sources to deepen your understanding. All these steps combine improve your comprehension of the material, and are a big change from staring at a page and not truly processing what you read. To supplement your reading, you can use a tool like Rx Bricks, which has all the foundational content you need in an easy to digest format. It also includes tools that support active reading, with notetaking and highlighting capabilities, knowledge check questions, flashcards, and quizzes.
Regular repetition of information is valuable for both comprehension and memorization. When building comprehension skills, though, interleaving is a great practice that can be easily repeated — and you may be doing it already without realizing it. With this technique, the goal is to study multiple, unrelated topics within the same study session. Research suggests that interleaving leads to long-term retention and the improved ability to apply what you learn to other contexts.
One of the easiest ways to practice interleaving is to use randomized questions in a Qbank. This way, you’ll be presented information from a variety of topics and themes, causing you to home in on relevant concepts and comprehend them in different contexts. Interleaving creates links among different, but highly related material, connections which are essential to become a good diagnostician.
To help with comprehension skills, elaborative interrogation requires you to think about the “why” and “how” behind a concept. In one study, students who used this technique had higher test scores than those who just read the material. Part of the reason for this is that knowing the reason or cause behind a fact helps deepen your comprehension of it. Plus, it makes it easier to remember that information when you need it, like on an exam or during rotations.
Going back to the Qbank example, using elaborative interrogation can mean reading the explanation of each question thoroughly to understand the “why” or “how” behind the answer. This technique is more than just memorizing the reasoning. It’s understanding it and applying it. Keep in mind, however, that it does take deliberate effort on your part to question beyond what is in front of you.
How to Improve Comprehension Skills Outside of Studying
As a review, there are ways to improve comprehension skills outside of sitting in a library and poring over your study materials. These will not only benefit your understanding (and test scores), but also your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. After all, studying non-stop — and doing nothing else — neither helps you succeed in med school nor helps with comprehension skills. The strategies reviewed here will help you become a more effective and efficient learner. Study smarter, not harder!
Two other ways to improve comprehension skills outside of studying are taking regular breaks and getting the right amount of sleep. Again and again, research shows that retaining and understanding new information is best done when your mind has time off to consolidate it. Even a small break, whether it be five minutes of walking a pet, making a quick snack, or chatting with a friend, can help you better analyze the information.
While memorization is important to success, a focus on building comprehension skills will take your studying to the next level. Med school is overwhelming for everyone, but these techniques can make things a little easier and ensure you’re prepared for any exam or patient that comes your way.
If you’re starting your med school journey and need help studying, click here to get a free five-day trial of USMLE-Rx.