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The Art of Learning – The Tip(ping) Point of Effective Studying

In the midst of all the impending excitement and stress in starting grad school, one of the things you may want to (re)evaluate is how to study. Seems simple enough, right? You’ve all been preparing for the OAT, studying for classes the last couple of years, or maybe it’s been a while since you’ve been in school. But while grad school isn’t necessarily more or less difficult, you’re in it for the long haul, and you want to make sure that you can retain everything you’re learning and be successful not only during school but for boards and beyond.

Dr. Barnhardt has posted some summaries for the book, “Make It Stick”, which contains entertaining stories and strategies for how to learn effectively, and I’d like to share some additional personal tips for studying that I hope you’ll find helpful. Some of them have been discussed in the book as well as previous blog posts; however, I wanted to put it in the context of my own and many of my classmates’ experience as 1st year students in the OD program though these can be applicable to all the health professions. If you have any questions or need any further explanation, please don’t hesitate to ask!


Tip 1: Plan out what you’re going to study

              When you wing it, you’re less likely to get as much done than if you had an organized study plan. You’ll receive a syllabus with the lecture and exam schedule for each class before the quarter even starts (these can be found on the portal and Moodle), so as you get a feel for the workload, start setting weekly and/or daily goals for what you want to finish. For example, set a goal for how many chapters and practice problems you want to finish for each class each day. Try to make these goals realistic with little breaks scheduled in between. For your first quarter, you might not have exams until a few weeks in. While these initial weeks can be a great opportunity for you to hang out and get to know your classmates, take advantage of the lighter schedule to also read ahead and start preparing for your exams before things get hectic.


Tip 2: Draw pictures, map things out.

             This is especially helpful for classes such as optics and anatomy where it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the abundance of information that you’ll need to learn or memorize (there’s no getting away from that for some material). In optics, much of the problem solving can be simplified by drawing out a diagram to see exactly which variable(s) you have and which you need to solve for. Rather than simply memorizing the formula, try to explain how it works to yourself or a friend and apply it to different scenarios. For anatomy, where you’ll be learning things such as the blood supply throughout the body, it can be useful to map it all out to get the big picture and see how everything connects (see below for examples). These don’t have to be fancy; stick people and geometric diagrams work great, and word maps or flow charts can be effective as well. Even if you prefer not to explore your artistic abilities, it helps to mentally draw out pathways in your head and to try to visualize what you’re learning.

Summary Sheet Example


Tip 3: Prepare and practice thoroughly for your practicals.

              Read the manual before class and take notes. You can add to them as you get tips from your instructors. I personally like to create 1-2 page summary sheets with the dialogue written out (see below for an example; try to be as concise as possible so you can quickly refer to them). You’ll naturally develop your own style but it helps to have a script with bullet points to guide you when you’re initially learning how to educate your patients while performing the techniques.

Practicing is important but don’t OVER practice. Yes, it is a thing. It’s better to get in a shorter practice session daily rather than attempting to do it for multiple hours across a few days. In addition, try practicing with different people. You’ll be seeing thousands of patients with all sorts of different personalities, conditions, and unique traits so you want to try to gain as much exposure to a diverse group of people as you can.


Tip 4: Periodically evaluate your performance.

              If an exam or a practical doesn’t go well, rather than simply heading full force into studying or practicing more, first assess what may have gone wrong or even what went right. Was one method better than the other? What was more efficient? Sometimes there are just bad days, and you have to accept it and try not to be too hard on yourself. Practice SMART, not just hard.

It also helps to get a friend to evaluate your work as well. When you practice in pairs, take some time after the session to discuss whether and why it was productive, or how it could be improved. It will be beneficial to practice with the rubric in front of you and to simulate the conditions of the practical. Some clubs will host mock proficiencies, which are extremely useful to get a sense of how exams will be conducted with time limits and having a proctor looking over your shoulder while you’re performing a technique.

Realistically, there will be times when life happens and you have to cram, but try to minimize those if you can help it. Even if it comes down to it, plan out what you can do after to review that information and make sure you have a good grasp before moving on to the new material. The school year gets tougher with each new quarter as you build upon information. This first year is especially critical since you’ll be learning a majority of the didactic portion that you’ll need for boards and, even more importantly, will serve as a foundation for the rest of your education and when you start seeing patients.


Tip 5: Take breaks.

              Rather than forcing yourself to power through studying (which I know is sometimes necessary), if your mind is exhausted, give yourself at least a bit of a break, whether you hit the gym, watch an episode of your favorite show, or grab some ice cream. You may find that you’ll be more productive than if you had just continued. It might even be helpful to actually schedule breaks and weekend outings in advance. It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of having to study continuously for exam after exam, when you feel like there’s no time to do anything else, but it’s important to take a step back once in a while and change your environment. You can definitely be successful in school and still have time to enjoy other social and fun activities.


Tip 6: Believe in yourself!

              The quarter system moves fast. You’re tested constantly. There may be times when you feel completely overwhelmed. You’ll have practiced for hours upon hours, studied until your brain feels like it’s about to fall out, prepared so perfectly and yet things still go awry. You may experience failure (something that might not currently exist in your vocabulary) for the first time and begin to question whether you’re pursuing the right path. But you have to remember why you fought so hard to get here and why you started this in the first place. You were admitted for a reason and you have the potential to do great things and help a lot of people. You took one of the most challenging steps by applying and you got into this amazing school! You should be extremely proud of yourselves and carry that passion that led you here throughout the struggles and successes of this journey.

              As you move forward through your education and professional lives, ask yourself, are you working towards the kind of clinician that you would trust your family and friends to see? Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Everyone here truly wants to help you succeed, and you CAN and you WILL. Let’s make the most of this wonderful adventure and become the best optometrists, physician assistants, and pharmacists that we can possibly be!



Caroline Quan

Optometric Intern, Class of 2022

Marshall B. Ketchum University

2575 Yorba Linda Blvd. | Fullerton, CA 92831


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