05 January 2008

Academic Excellence

For many people in both medical school, graduate school and undergraduate school, this is the beginning of the second semester (or quarter). If you are new to your academics, then you finished the first semester/fall quarter with some academic achievements (good or bad) and learned some things about yourself. Since this blog is about strategies for success in medicine (getting into medical school, staying in medical school and other things associated with medical school), I though I would post a note or two about making changes that can enhance your Academic excellence.

Doing well in academics is something that can be mastered with practice. It comes out of having a strong and solid approach to what you have to master in terms of knowledge and it comes out of having a high comfort level with the learning process. If you always feel that you are somehow “not going to be able to get everything learned” or that ” the course is too hard”, then your beliefs can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no task, no matter how great or how formidable, that cannot be approached by taking small steps every day until it is conquered. You have to be willing to “chip away” on a daily basis and note your progress on a daily basis in order to see that you are handling the larger task in smaller steps.

Let’s take Organic Chemistry for as an example. At the beginning of the year, your professor hands you a syllabus that outlines the lecture schedule, laboratory schedule and exam dates in addition to what is expected in terms of how you will be graded in the course. Usually your grade is the result of your grades on some combination of exams and projects. Armed with this information, the first thing that you need to do is make a master subject calendar of lecture topics and test dates. Also include things like “one week to Exam 1 ” and “2 weeks to Exam 1″ along with “3, 2 and 1 week to project due” so that when you look at your calendar daily, you know exactly how much time you have to master the knowledge for the material on your exams/projects.

The next thing to do is look at your reading and problem assignments each week for your lectures/topics. Some topics have many problems and some don’t have so many problems. Divide and conquer here by looking at the amount of time alloted for each topic. This should give you a good idea of the importance of each topic. Your textbook is a good resource in terms of looking at how much time and space it devotes to a particular topic. For example, look at functional groups of organic compounds. This is a topic that can be divided into families with the simpler families being presented first and the more complicated families being presented later. You can use your text to add upon your knowledge base.

The other thing that you want to do is be sure that you are prepared for each lecture. Don’t go to class with the idea that you can sit there, listen to the lecture and learn what you need for mastery. You need to know something about the topic before you hear the lecture. The best way to do this is to read about the topic before you hear the lecture so that you know something about the items that will be presented. Don’t every walk into a lecture “cold” as 50% of your actual studying can be done in your preparation for you upcoming lecture. The other 50% comes in your digestion of both the reading and lecture in addition to any problems that were assigned.

A point about problems and problem solving. With any problem that you are given, try to figure out what learning concept is behind the problem. For example, look at the wording of a problem and then review the concept that applies to that wording. Consider the problem, in diabetic ketoacidosis, glycerol is primarily used for what? To answer this problem, you need to know something about the biochemical derangements that take place in diabetic ketoacidosis. In diabetic ketoacidosis, the patient is acidotic which implies that ketone bodies have been released and have lowered the pH of a patient’s blood. What else do you need to remember? You need to remember that while the blood sugar is high, the patient does not have adequate insulin which allows glucose to enter the cells and undergo glycolysis and be used for fuel. That leads you to thinking about why the ketone bodies are out in the blood stream in such high quantities in order to cause acidosis. This because the brain primarily, needs to have a constant fuel supply and in the face of a huge amount of glucose in the blood, none of it can be used by the brain because there is no insulin to allow the brain cells to take up the glucose. Now what do you need to know about diabetic ketoacidosis in addition to the above and that is that fat is being catabolized into acetyl Co-A that is being used to make the ketone bodies and that the fat comes from the breakdown of stored triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids can undergo beta oxidation to acetyl Co-A and then shunted into ketone bodies but the glycerol goes to the liver as a substrate for gluconeogenesis or the making of glucose. In the face of large amounts of glucose in the blood, the diabetic can’t use that glucose to feed their brain and thus they are making more glucose in addition to ketone bodies which are acidic. This is the concept behind this problem and why you need to approach problems like this or questions like this from many different angles rather than just memorize the answer. You have to be able to master the concepts so that in any manner you are questioned, you can figure out the correct answer not attempt to rely on you memory.

The next thing that you must think about is that you have all of the tools that you need to master your coursework under the conditions that work best for you. Don’t compare yourself to anyone in your class. Some people are visual learners (tend to sit in the front of the class) and some folks are aural learners (tend to sit in the back to avoid aural distractions). Most folks use a combination of both visual and aural and thus learn best when they utilize both methods. If you are a visual learner, then make a brief outline of the material to be covered in lecture and take a note here and there. Don’t try to write down every word that the professor says but watch how the material is presented and fill in your notes later. If you are an aural learner, listen to the lecture and take a note here and there. Listen for inflections in the professor’s voice. Listen for key phrases such as “in summary” or lists of important topics. If you worry that you will miss something, take a small digital recorder with you and record the lecture. You can then upload it to your lap top and it’s there if you need to review concepts.

In short, if you have managed to get through first semester, you have every tool that you need to excel second semester. You may need to adjust some of your study habits or you may need to fine tune others. The important thing is not to dwell on what anyone else in your class does but to do what you need to get the results that you want. There is no class invented that could not be mastered because after all, someone had to come up with the facts and concepts for the professor to present. Don’t go into any of your courses with preconceived notions that the course is too “touch” or is a “weed-out” course. The coursework is there for you to master and you have to figure out how you will master it.

Another common mistake that many students make is relying on their perceptions of the professor’s like or dislike of them personally. No one who is lecturing actually cares about you as a person. They don’t have a personal relationship with you, and if they do, it doesn’t matter in terms of the presentation of the material to be mastered. The material is there and it doesn’t care about you or the professor or whether or not you “like” or ”dislike” the subject matter. If you spend the dollars in tuition, then that alone should be enough for you to have a vested interest in mastery of the material that is presented. In short, you need to get your tuition dollar’s worth out of this class for whatever reason. Whether you ”like” or “don’t like” the way the professor talks, looks, or anything else has no relationship to how you deal with the material that is presented. The professor is not your main source of knowledge but someone to help you navigate (by their experience) though mastery of this class.

Finally, you can decide in this very instant, that you will change your “thinking” in terms of how you approach your coursework. You can approach your coursework from a point of fear and trepidation or you can approach your coursework from the standpoint of “hit me with your best shot because I can hit it back and score”. You can decide to toss old habits of trying to “cram” at the last minute and replace them with solid organization and daily study. You can decide that you will either adapt a lifestyle and study style that will allow you to become an excellent scholar or you will continue to do what you have been doing that doesn’t get the academic achievement that you want. The key point is that you are the complete master of your thoughts, actions and reactions.


Jason Johnson said...

Good point! thanks for the tips and advice. I really needed this now more than ever!

Anonymous said...

I have already finished med school, but while I was in med school I somehow managed to just barely pass my subjects coz I didnt take studying seriously. But now things have changed & I really do want to improve my knowledge. I certainly feel ashamed when people my age are doing so much better than me now. Is there still a way I can improve my studies. Ive taken a break of about 3 years to study for my boards. Dont know if I made the right choice or if I should try to still be in clinical touch & study at the same time. Do advice if I still have the chance at being a good physician.

Jennifer said...

I love this! Starting med school in the fall and just finding the blog for the first time! Timeless