How to succeed at exams for medics

Be creative

when you've finished this page you will be able to...

Good revision requires imagination: find ways to organise what you need to know so it makes sense to you, draw diagrams, make mind maps, have discussions, play revision games, set goals, practice diagnoses on your little brother - anything that makes what you need to know more memorable.


The suggestions on this page will help you to develop 'active learning' skills. When you actively learn, you take control of the information you need to know, and make it your own. You can 'own' the knowledge by writing your own definitions, summarising information in your own words, creating links, making diagrams and pictures - whatever works for you. You will find that these techniques are much more effective than 'passive' learning, such as reading your notes, rewriting them and hoping that something sticks.

Read on for some ideas you can use to make sure your learning is active.

Create a glossary

Making a glossary is a good way of making sure you understand the basics of your subject. Glossaries are especially useful for 'jargon-heavy' subjects like medicine.

Activity: create a glossary - 30 minutes

1. Each time you encounter a new word, look up a definition in your notes, text books or the mondofacto dictionary. Do the same with words you struggle to remember.

2. Rewrite the definitions you find in your own words.

3. Add more words and definitions to your glossary as you find them.

4. Keep a glossary for each subject in the appropriate exam file then you can add to it each time you come across a new word.

5. As you revise, make sure you can define each word in your glossaries

Summarise your information

As a student of medicine, you will be aware that your brain doesn't remember by writing notes. Memory is a complex process; memories are triggered by past association and prior knowledge. Try this...

Spend a few minutes thinking about your past holidays. Are your memories neatly ordered chronologically? Or do different holidays, people, events and places randomly pop up in your mind? Chances are you'll experience a more 'random' recollection of holiday memories. Each memory will trigger more memories, which in turn will trigger even more memories, perhaps of events that you haven't thought about for years. And all without the help of notes - amazing.

Why does this matter? It is important to realise that copying out your notes over and over again will not help you to understand or remember information. There are much better ways to ensure that what you are trying to learn will stay in your long term memory and be available as you sit in your exam.

When you were thinking about your holidays, you won't have been able to recall every single word of every conversation you had. It is more likely that you remembered chunks of information about important or memorable places, people and events (remember that Turkish waiter who looked like Brad Pitt?). This is what you need to do for revision. Instead of trying to remember every single word from a textbook or your notes, you need to remember the main ideas and concepts. You can then flesh these things out to answer a question in an exam.

So, we know that our minds do not think about information as pages and pages of written notes. Instead, ideas, facts and concepts are stored as 'chunks' of information, which is linked to other chunks of information. So how do you make sure that you revise in a way that suits our brains? One way to do this is to summarise what you need to learn - this will help you make sure you understand what you are trying to learn.

Activity: summarising the information you need to revise - 30 minutes

1. Layout the information for a subject or topic that you need to revise.

2. As you work through your notes, instead of simply writing them out, summarise the information using your own words.

3. When you come to cover this topic again, you can summarise each paragraph even further, consolidating your knowledge of the key facts and important concepts.

Make flash cards

A flash card is simply a small piece of card on which a fact, concept or idea can be written. The beauty of flash cards is that they encourage you to summarise information to make it fit on the card - and they're portable, so you can revise anywhere. Try revising your flash card facts in a variety of locations - the stranger the better - this will make your facts more memorable.

Activity: using flash cards as a memory aid - 30 minutes

1. Invest in some index cards, or cut some pieces of card into A6 sizes.

2. Write facts and concepts on your flash cards. You can then keep them in your pocket or bag and get them out for a quick read whenever you have a few minutes spare: on the bus, in a queue, in the bath, during a commercial break, while your game is loading...

3. Ask a friend or colleague to test your knowledge of your flash card facts.

Recommended Further Reading

Using Pictures

Your 'visual' memory will help you to remember more: "a picture is worth a thousand words" may be a cliche, but it's true.

Ever bumped into someone you have met once before - you recognise their face, but you just can't remember their name? This happens because our visual memory extremely powerful, and you can use this to your advantage by converting your notes into pictures or diagrams.

If you can take a whole page of notes and convert it into a picture, not only are you ensuring that you understand the information, you are also summarising it and 'owning' it. It will be much easier to recall this picture during an exam than it would be to recall every word on a page of text.

However, a word of warning: you may have a textbook with lots of complex and colourful diagrams in it. It would be really easy to copy them out and convince yourself that you have done lots of revision, but this is a bad as copying out notes. You may not fully understand the diagram, and what is the point of copying it out when it's already in the text book? Instead you should summarise textbook pictures into a short paragraph, then, when you are sure that you fully understand the concept, draw out your own version of the picture.

Activity: a picture is worth a thousand words - 30 minutes

1. For each subject or topic, work through your notes summarising them, pick out any sections which can be summarised with a picture or a diagram. Medicine lends itself to this very nicely.

2. Using up to three colours (colour stimulates the mind, but more than three colours can be overwhelming), create a picture to represent your notes.

Hint: You could copy this picture onto a flashcard and carry this with you for mini revision sessions, perhaps on the bus, or during the adverts whilst you are watching TV.

Make mind maps

Our brains like knowledge to be linked. We aren't great at remembering isolated facts, but we are great at retrieving information that's linked; think of it as a chain reaction of remembering. One piece of recalled knowledge reminds us of another, which in turn reminds us of something else, and so on. It is well documented that creating links between different pieces of information can help retain information in your long term memory, and this linking of information gives great insight into the way the mind works. The aim of revision is to take this subconscious action (which the brain is already very good at) and make it conscious.

Activity: making a mind map - 30 minutes

This activity will help you to bring together a lot of the information your have revised so far, create links between facts and cement them in your long term memory.

1. Write the revision topic or subject title in the middle of a page of plain paper.

2. Create branches from this central word for each major concept, fact or idea.

3. Continue to build your mind-map by adding lines between linked concepts and adding words, phrases and pictures to create a one sheet map of the entire subject or topic.

4. Use colour in your mind map to stimulate your mind (up to three colours is effective).

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