How To Stop Forgetting What You Study

How to Stop Forgetting what you study by Leah4sci Organic Chemistry MCATYou sit down to study and quickly get in the zone. 
Everything just clicks!
The concepts make sense, you understand the information, and you ace the related practice questions.
When you’re done, you put your books/notes away knowing this was a solid study session.

You’re excited to pick this up again tomorrow, or even next week. 
Ideally, picking up from exactly where you left off.
Maybe you got through half of a chapter and plan to finish it today, or perhaps you’re on the next chapter which happens to build on this one.

And you realize… “I don’t remember any of this!!”

“I don’t remember what I studied last time!
Do I move on albeit confused because I lack the foundations, or waste my entire study session relearning what I thought I mastered last time?”

Relearning what you studied may work for 1-2 days,
but at some point, if all you’re doing is reviewing what you keep forgetting, WHEN will you ever make progress?

The MCAT covers SEVEN sciences.
But, if the more you study, the more you feel like you’re forgetting,
How on earth will you ever get through it all?

And so you start to look inward.

“There’s something wrong with ME!
Maybe “I” am just not smart enough for this; maybe “I” am not cut out to be a doctor.”

Hold it right there.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
It’s human nature to forget.

Think about any 2-semester science you’ve taken in the past.
Ever notice that even when you take part 1 in the Fall and ace your December finals, it still feels like you’re starting from scratch with part 2 just a few weeks later?

This happened to me going from chem 1 to chem 2, orgo 1 to orgo 2, physics 1 to physics 2, and so on.

Instead of wondering, “How do I make sure I don’t forget this?”
I challenge you to rethink the question.

Ask instead,

“How do I structure my studying so that I can consistently review the information in such an efficient manner that I don’t waste time constantly going back to what I already studied?”

If you abandon the information you will forget, so never go too long without reviewing.

How do you do this efficiently?

I have my students structure their study time into MCAT Blocks. These are organized chunks of time dedicated to distraction-free studying, ideally utilizing the pomodoro method.
(With a handy Distraction List on the side)

With an average 2-3.5 hour study block, consider breaking it up as follows:

  • 20 minutes review
  • Quick breather
  • Study new information
  • 5 min breather
  • 15-20 minutes Active Writing

Let’s break it down starting with the 20 minutes of review.

For example, if you’re about to start the physics chapter on Forces, spend the first 20 minutes reviewing Translational Motion– NOT the equations, just the logic and concepts.

This review is only a refresher. This means you should be able to get through the entire review in LESS than 20 minutes.
If it takes you MORE than 20 minutes to complete a chapter, then you didn’t learn/understand it well enough last time.

If during the refresher you find you did not understand it well enough the first time, slow down and focus on mastering each concept before moving on. No matter how long it takes.

Next, take a quick breather.
You’re not a robot; your brain requires breaks.
Consider grabbing a cup of water, or just closing your eyes to meditate for 2 minutes before you continue.

Studying New Information:

This is the meat of your study session.
Take your time slowly and carefully studying the new information following my
5 steps to mastering MCAT science.
Focus on learning rather than memorization. Prioritize the logic, and constantly ask yourself, “Do I really understand this?”

Focus on quality rather than quantity when you study — perhaps utilizing the Pomodoro Method and Distraction List to stay on track.

When you have about 20 minutes remaining, take another break.
Use the restroom, grab more water, and meditate again if needed.

Come back refreshed and ready to dive into memorization.

Memory is built slowly over time rather than cramming all at once.
If your study block is focused on simultaneous learning AND memorization, you may find yourself overwhelmed with memorization to the point of missing the logic and facts.

As you study, you’ll come across a list of names, terms, and concepts to memorize:
Mark the page, highlight these words/concepts, or write them on a separate page for later Active Writing.

Then, during your final 15 minutes focus on the Active Writing approach.
This will slowly move each name/pathway/concept into your long-term memory.

You won’t get far in 15 minutes, but if you do this EVERY SINGLE STUDY BLOCK you’ll find that the information slowly seeps in and sticks over time.

Continuing with the Physics Forces example, use some of your active writing time to start on Forces equations and some of this time reviewing Kinematics equations.

As you’re studying, if you realize a particular chapter will be memory-intensive, consider allotting 20 or even 30 minutes for active writing. 

How this helps you remember:

If every single study block begins with review and ends with memorization.
Your mind is never so far removed from the information that you start to forget.

When you are just starting out you’ll have fewer chapters to review. This means you’ll get to them more frequently, making it easier to put more and more of the information into your long-term memory.

As you advance with content, you’ll have a lot more information to remember.
This means you won’t get to review every chapter as frequently.
The early chapters that you’ve reviewed more often will not require as much review in the future, leaving your review time open for the more recent information.

After implementing this for a few weeks you’ll have a very strong understanding of what YOU need to focus on

and will be able to adjust your study and review blocks as needed.

Perhaps you’ll choose to increase your review time to 30 minutes, perhaps you’ll cut your Active Writing time down to 10 minutes, but add another 15 minute session during your lunch breaks.
Remember to customize this to what works FOR YOU!
(So long as you make sure to incorporate these blocks regularly. Skipping DOESN’T work)

In addition to the sit-down review aspects discussed above, here are a few more tips to take into consideration for even more “review so I don’t forget” insurance:

  1. The audio summary strategy. You can even substitute YouTube or study-hall videos. If you’re always hearing the information, you won’t forget.
  2. Many students swear by Anki or similar mobile apps. Don’t waste your sit-down study time on this. Instead consider this strategy during bonus time as I explain here: Flashcards.
  3. If you need more review time, consider adding a 30 or 60 minute dedicated review block into your weekly study schedule.
  4. Shower Markers for active writing in the shower. (some love it, others hate it, your call)

I’d love to hear from you. What have you been using to ensure you don’t forget what you study? Let me know in the comments below.

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