Studies of the neuroscience of learning over the past several years have yielded some important and interesting revelations. Namely, learning is a multifaceted neurological process that hinges on synaptic plasticity.
Why does this matter for medical students? Consider how you’re able to recall the batting average of a particular baseball player or the complicated love lives of characters in your favorite sitcom years later. What about recalling the names and mechanisms of anti-epileptic drugs? That is a true challenge.
On the surface, this phenomenon makes sense. We recall what we put the time and energy into repetitively viewing, reviewing, and analyzing. Neurologically, this bears out in a process called long-term potentiation. So how does long-term potentiation work? Long-term potentiation refers to neurons increasing (or decreasing) their networks of connections depending on how often they are repetitively stimulated over a specific period of time.
How to Increase Long-Term Memory Retention
Your first pass through a particular set of materials is going to be inadequate for long-term retention, especially since the material you must memorize in med school is so complex. Our brains require long-term and frequent stimulation for material to stick, so a second pass is essential.
In addition, your long-term retention strategy should include varied sources or media. We all learn differently: Some of us are auditory learners, and others are visual or kinetic learners; some of us gravitate toward reading sections of textbooks, while many prefer podcasts, videos, or flash cards.
No single study process will work for everybody, and there is no answer for how to increase long-term memory retention with a set number of passes. However, there are some excellent ways to make use of what the neuroscience of learning has taught us about long-term potentiation.
Time and spaced repetition, for example, allow you to come back to tough topics to make sure you’re stimulating the right synaptic connections. When you see a topic on a board exam or in a clinical setting, you’ll light up the right neuronal networks to find the answer. Using flash cards, like Flash Facts, reminds those neurons that they’re important and keeps critical synaptic connections active.
Using question banks is also essential — you don’t know what you don’t know until you’ve been tested on it. A good Qbank, like Qmax, allows you to plug gaps in your content knowledge and pull together new connections that you can reinforce by hitting that information again via a related video, podcast, or flash cards.
Adding Long-Term Retention Strategies to Your Study Process
We’ve entered a time when smartphones contain all of the medical and scientific information humans have to offer. What sets us apart from our machines, however, is our ability to consider the weight of information we take in, observe additional details, and develop a diagnosis or plan with everything in mind.
Medical education is more than learning a long list of facts, and the students who approach it that way may feel overwhelmed when they sit down to take a comprehensive clinical science exam. Developing a methodological approach to learning new information and a study process that makes it stick helps build a scaffold for future knowledge gained.
The more you can comfortably absorb from your preclinical medical education, the better you’ll be able to tackle those topics when they show up on exams. Most importantly, the better equipped you’ll be to help a patient understand the nature of an illness or the necessity of an intervention when you’re a physician.
For access to long-term retention study tools like Flash Facts and Qmax, get a free five-day trial of USMLE-Rx today!