By PLA Cindy
As a first year medical student who completed undergrad at Queen’s, there wasn’t much adjustment needed in terms of campus or city – I was already in love with Queen’s and Kingston. However, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of the learning strategies I would need to meet the demands of this new program. After 1.5 semesters, I have learned/re-learned a few things I would like to share with you.
- Learning the forest before the trees:
There’s a true story that goes around in our class about an upper-year student who was being evaluated on performing a physical examination. When it came time to test the general movement of limbs, the student asked the patient to get up and walk across the room. The patient did not budge; instead, he pointed out that he couldn’t do so because he only had one leg.
There is so much to learn in professional school, and in many undergraduate courses, that we often find ourselves closely examining the trees (the minutia), but lost in the forest (the big picture). Professors are well-aware of this. They like to expand the horizon of our knowledge by giving out a lot of supplementary detail, but they also know that we need a big-picture perspective to tie everything together. They generally give objectives at the beginning of lectures, and take-home points at the end. The objectives narrow down what to study, and perhaps more importantly, tell you why you are studying. They are a life saver, especially when it seems like there’s an overload of information in a short amount of time. Using these objectives to self-assess understanding when reading textbook material also helps to keep the reader (you!) more focused and engaged. Finally, thinking big-picture makes it harder to make those silly mistakes during an exam, like not doing a general inspection of the patient and asking them to walk across the room on one leg!
- Creating balance and routine:
One thing that took a little bit of getting used to for me was the amount of class during the day (upwards of 8 hours) compared to the breezy 3-hour-per-day class load of undergrad. I used to follow the 9 to 5 method to make the most of prime daytime brain power and will power, but now that 9-5 time is taken up by classes, and the outside-of-class time seems more precious than ever. Every person that I’ve talked to seems to use this time differently. Some have daily study sessions on campus after class until later in the evening, some go to the gym and sweat it out, some go home right away to eat and veg out by watching an episode of Suits. My default is in the last category, but I have begun more and more to strike a balance. The truth is, we are all busy students, and it doesn’t stop this week or next week. So, embrace the work that you are doing, but also give yourself time for fun (even during midterms!)
I have found what works best is to choose your battles: maybe you don’t have time for three readings, but you probably have time for the most important and urgent one (critical for understanding what the prof will be talking about in class tomorrow for example). Try to review notes from classes the same day if you can, as constant review is the best way to shelve learned material into long-term memory. Always leave time for a little bit of relaxation and fun, like scheduling in Monday night zumba class with a friend. Having a routine is the best way to realize your time management dreams – if you do something long enough, it becomes second nature. Figuring out what kind of balance you need takes a lot of trial and error – I’m still working on mine!
- Adopting the growth mindset:
During the first couple weeks of medical school, I was suffering from “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that somehow the people on the admissions committee made a mistake and I had slipped in accidentally as an imposter med student. This was compounded by the fact that the office could not find my file on the first day of checking in, and then I was only signed up for the fall semester. Regardless of the few hiccups, I have managed to fool the admissions office so far, and it’s probably too late for them to send me home now . The point is, we all experience these moments of doubt about our abilities, and we become fixated on our perception of our capabilities. “I am not smart enough,” we say. “I always procrastinate – that’s how I am,” or “I suck at math” are comments too familiar to many.
One of the best things that I learned from being a PLA is the idea of the growth mindset. It essentially proposes that our abilities aren’t fixed, but are instead learned, practiced, and sharpened over time. It’s about focusing on the process of growing as a person instead of the end result. People say that the profession of medicine involves lifelong learning, but I think that lifelong learning applies to pretty much every profession out there. Having a growth mindset allows us to overcome challenges and obstacles along the way and recognize them as blessings in disguise. It makes us rethink our abilities and step outside of our comfort zone.
What do you think you would like to grow as a learning skill? As always, there are tools here on this site to help you along the way. Come to Stauffer to visit the PLAs for some more study skills advice – we are lonely!
Best wishes on your journey!