The Definitive Guide to a Digital (Medical) Student
What tools to use to study and be flexible? What works and what doesn’t when it comes to studying, lectures and note-taking? And how to approach digital detox amid all the tech you're going to add.
The whole world went digital overnight. I can already see the immense benefits that eLearning is bringing to the table. Flexible schedule, a better quality of lectures, better quality of life and more time at our disposal.
This is all great. I hope this will stick to schools at least to some extent.
On the other side of the equation is the student. While most of us have no problems switching to digital learning environments, we also need to start thinking about using technology to our benefit. Now is the perfect time to make the switch.
The future lies in the student becoming digital. Someone that’s able to do remote studying whenever and wherever. As there’s a boom in freelancers working from their living room and CEOs working from their laundry room (seriously, Slack).
This is why I’m proposing for (medical) students to go digital. This will save time, energy and well-being in the long run. Of course, when done correctly and sensibly.
I appeal this post to my fellow medical students. But in reality, it concerns and can be applied by any student out there. High school, college, you name it. The sooner the better. That’s why “medical student-only” apps and tools are another topic.
There is one more benefit of becoming digital. It’s the skill to be able to understand the basics of any digital system and application. Digitalisation is happening in every field and will become the new reality sooner or later. Therefore, digital literacy will most certainly become a an important form of literacy.
Let me begin
What are the qualities of a digital (medical) student?
- Access and Create Anywhere
- Digitalise Your Notes
- Use Tech to Learn Better
- Focus and Filter Your Digitalised World
Access and Create Anywhere
This is the first time in educational history that we can access all our files anywhere. We can do anything at the palm of our hand or from any computer we have access to.
The first aspect I want to focus on is cloud storage. The only way to access all the files we need it to set up cloud storage across all our devices.
The best thing to do is to choose the provider according to your devices. If you have a Mac and an iPhone it’s sensible to choose iCloud. If you have an Android phone or a Windows computer, you’re no short of options.
- Dropbox is a cloud storage service I like. It’s fast and very reliable. The only problem is that it’s expensive and it only offers 2TB of storage, which you don’t need. So I use the free 2GB version for my school-related stuff. Another great thing is that it integrates with all Microsoft Office apps. Get 500MB of bonus space with this link.
- If you’re a Google fan, by all means, choose Google Drive. Their free plan has more than enough space and it integrates beautifully with Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Plus, you can use Google Photos to back them all up. I, however, don’t have a great relationship with Google so I try to stay away from it.
- On the other hand, there’s Microsoft with their OneDrive. If your school offers their free apps it’s a good idea to choose OneDrive. In my experience, it works okay, but it might be slow at times.
- As said earlier, if you’re on Apple, choose iCloud. It’s amazing how everything seamlessly integrates. Their storage is sufficient and pretty affordable in comparison to other providers.
I use iCloud to sync all of my photos and Dropbox for my school documents I need to access on my phone.
The great thing about all of these providers is that they offer cross-platform apps to sync everything.
So what should you sync? All course materials you can get in PDF. If you buy physical textbooks they usually include some kind of electronic version. You should also download all resources you get for lectures and practicals. Additionally, you can use a phone scanner app (included in all the storage apps above) to scan everything you write by hand.
I usually try to get all textbooks in text and digital. I prefer studying from the hardcopy, but digital versions allow me to check it anywhere and anytime.
Another area where you need to excel as a digital student is creating files. Google Docs and Microsoft Office all offer cross-platform apps to use for creating any document or presentation. Apple again has its own apps for their devices. Alternatively, you could also use some of the note-taking apps I mention later. Some of the storage apps mentioned also offer creating documents right in their app, for example, Dropbox.
Now that all of your devices are connected to your database of files you need, you can do anything you want with them on any device. Isn’t that awesome?
Digitalise Your Notes
Taking notes is a controversial topic. Research on learning shows they are not an effective learning strategy. Plus, if your professor gives you access to their presentations, why bother transcribing all of what they say? But anyway, at some point you’re going to have to write something down and there are a few choices to go digital.
The first option you have is to use a tablet. If that’s an Apple or Android one it will fall beautifully into place with the above-mentioned storage apps. I’ve never actually used one for school purposes. I must say I’m still a bit sceptical about the reliability of pens over a longer period. But still, I have 2 recommendations.
- iPad Air or Pro: iPad is, by all means, the king of tablets out there. Pair it with a keyboard and pencil and you don’t need a computer for most use cases. This is a great choice for someone who isn’t a demanding computer user and wants to use it instead of their computer. However, it can quickly become a distraction (see the section on focus).
- reMarkable: This is a paper-like table you probably haven’t heard of yet. This tablet promises to imitate paper while remaining digital. This one has the most potential or someone, who wants to go digital, but doesn’t want any distractions. They just released version 2 (that I almost bought) and I think it’s way better than the first one. No distractions, just straight up PDFs and notes.
The second option you have is taking notes with on computer. These days it seems as if every month there’s a new trend in note-taking apps. You have a few options.
- Notion: This is much more than just a note-taking app. You can do pretty much anything you want to using it. To-do lists, calendars, collaboration, galleries and more. And they offer a free premium plan for students. I moved almost my whole life on Notion and it works awesome.
- Evernote and OneNote: I must say I rarely use these 2 apps, but they also do a great job. Evernote is one of the more popular ones and OneNote is perfect for pairing with Microsoft Office. Plus if you have an iPad to also take handwritten notes, you can also use OneNote.
It’s quite a big jump transferring everything from paper form to digital. Perhaps you still want to make notes the old-school way. I think that’s great. The only issue is that they’re not accessible to you by default.
However, if you want to go digital sooner or later and access them anywhere, the best choice is to scan them and upload them to your cloud storage. Many times the cloud storage apps come with “scanner apps” as I mentioned above.
Until only recently I used to only take notes by hand. But because this proved to be unsustainable, I switched to Notion. We’ll see where that goes.
Use Tech to Learn Better
It’s all great that all of our course materials are organised and our notes are in a digital form. But it doesn’t make much sense without actually learning the material. One of the key benefits of taking digital notes is also that it takes much less time leaving much more of it for studying. If you also apply some best-practices and some useful apps, it makes us that much more likely to succeed in exams.
Technology for studying comes in 2 forms: using flashcards and making study-ready notes.
Flashcards are the gold standard of digital learning. You can make them on paper, but this is again time-consuming and more unreliable than apps.
There are 2 apps you should know about. The first one is Anki and the second one is Quizlet. For functionality and effectiveness go with Anki, for the looks go with Quizlet.
- Anki is a free app (except on iPhone) that lets you create all kinds of flashcards. The special thing about it is its scheduling method. Anki uses an algorithm that automatically spaces the flashcards according to how good you know them. For example, when you see a card for the first time and you don’t know it, it will reappear in 10 minutes. Every time you see and know the flashcard, the options of interval will become longer.
- Quizlet is very similar to Anki, but the don’t offer the scheduling that Anki does in their free version. It’s also not the cheapest of subscriptions, but it sure looks better than Anki.
When I use flashcards I use Anki because of the algorithm I mentioned. The only problem with flashcards is that firstly we tend to put too much stuff into them and secondly, they can stimulate memorisation over understanding. Another problem is that I tend to not include the right amount or exactly the right topics in them, which may result in a slightly lower knowledge level.
To sum up I think they’re great to use for memorising something you just can’t otherwise.
What I’m more excited about is making study-ready notes. One of the methods I came over is the Cornell note-taking system. The idea about it is not to write the actual course material and summaries, but questions for later review.
This is great because research shows that (again) note-taking is not very beneficial. But making questions is much better because we can later actively study them, especially if we don’t write answers.
This may seem counter-intuitive and it was also to me at first. But when we actively recall the information we need to learn, there’s a much better chance we’re going to memorise it. When we study our traditional notes, meaning course summaries (answers, basically), we tend to just re-read them and learn them by heart. According to science, this is more often than not time-consuming and not memorised in the long-run. However, it might work great in the short-run.
Any of the note-taking software above will do. I use Notion, but please make some experiments yourself and let me know what’s it like!
Focus and Filter Your Digitalised World
It’s easy to lose focus in such a dense digital world we create for ourselves. That’s why I think it’s still important to have some balance but to also make the digital environment friendly to your time. Take breaks from it, just as you would from your other tasks.
Meditation improves focus, well-being and makes us calm. I use it as a way to disconnect. That’s why I like to use it not only when I have to study, but also when I just want to feel better. Now I’m not a yogi and don’t know all that much stuff about it, so I use smartphone apps that guide you through the process. You have a ton of options and I tried only one of them - Headspace. I recommend you give it a shot and see for yourself. If you’re in the US you’re lucky, since the student rate is only $10 per year. Alternatively, use this link to try it for free for 14 days.
I’m sure you experienced that when you start studying, your mind is flooded with thoughts and ideas that were nowhere to be found before you started. As if distractions from our phone and computer are not enough. That’s why I like to keep a notebook near me to write down these thoughts and any tasks I need to do. To clear my thought, essentially. By far the most efficient method of doing that is a Bullet Journal. It was made to organise your thoughts and your tasks in the past, present and future. And it’s also a nice way to kind of distance yourself from the digital world.
I also wrote a post about Bullet Journaling.
It happens that you’re feeling as if you don’t want to put any work in. Even reading through a topic is hard. It happens. But if you don’t have a choice, an awesome way to solve this problem is to use a Pomodoro timer. It’s a countdown timer that makes you work or study for 25 minutes and gives you a 5-minute break when you do so. After 4 cycles you get a longer, 15-minute break. That’s the default setup, but you can always customise it. My favourite one is called Forest, which prevents you from using your phone and in the meantime, “grows” trees. It’s a pleasant way to gamify focus periods.
Exercise and Sleep
We often diminish the importance of exercise and sleep, because we have to study. But in my opinion, it should be the other way around - it’s more beneficial to take some time off and go for a run or to the gym and sleep well.
You’ll achieve 2 things with exercise:
- Release your frustrations and start to feel better about yourself as well as physically after completing the workout.
- Have less time to study the same amount of material, which means you’ll be more productive (Parkinson’s law).
Sleeping enough means having a normal amount of sleep every night as well as going to bed and waking up at a reasonable time. Sleep does so many beneficial things for memorisation as well as for your well-being, but the most important one for students is this: Getting a full 7-9 hours of sleep will not only prepare your brain for studying but also improve memorisation after you study.
I believe in going digital. There may be little limits to the technology we have access to, but there should be limits to how much we’re using it. Amid of all the apps and techniques, perhaps the most important thing we need to do is listen to ourselves.
All of the claims in this post were scientifically proven, which means that they work for a significant majority of the testing population in a significant way. However, this doesn’t mean they work for everybody and I think this is important to keep in mind. The best way to go about it is to experiment on yourself and find out what works best.
When you find what that is, science doesn’t matter.
The claims about the study techniques, taking notes and flashcards all came from a book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
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