Medical knowledge grows like a metastatic cancer, rapidly expanding every day, uninhibited as new literature is published, novel discoveries are made and evidence is refined. As this magnificent body of knowledge grows, so too does the magnitude of foundational material that medical students are required to master.

group of students studying togetherNowhere is this more evident than with First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, a seminal textbook used by virtually every medical student across the country to prepare for their first, and arguably most important, medical boards exam. The book has swelled considerably in the last decade, gaining nearly 300 dense, detailed pages to reach a total of 752 pages.

As students across the country gear up to take Step 1 this spring, many are turning to novel learning tools and innovative methods to make learning this massive amount of foundational material a little easier. These new resources are not only changing how medical students study but have the potential to redefine education as we know it.

The first of these new learning tools is dominated by visual mnemonics. Two companies, SketchyMedical and Picmonic, have led the charge in creating mnemonics based on images to ease learning even the most obscure details. As an example, if I wanted to learn about the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, I would visit one of these subscription-based websites, look up the video on that particular bug and be guided through a story represented by an image that was cleverly linked to all the information I should know about that organism. The yellow bunch of grapes in the image teaches me that this gram-positive cocci grows with a golden sheen in grapelike clusters. The man blowing bubbles reminds me that this organism is catalase positive.

Interestingly, the reasoning behind these tools is thousands of years old, founded on a technique used by ancient Greeks and Romans called the “method of loci.” Also referred to as the “mind palace,” this memory system uses spatial and visual cues to organize massive amounts of information. The human brain is simply better at recalling spatial and visual information that is unique, memorable and rich in associations.

Even though this concept has been around for millennia, both SketchyMedical and Picmonic are less than 5 years old, and they are growing rapidly. Tens of thousands of students around the world have subscriptions to access their tools, and these companies are beginning to expand their resources into nonmedical subjects as well.

Another favorite tool among medical students is a flashcard application called Anki. This free, open-source software is unique in that it not only allows you to build digital flashcards with tremendous flexibility, but also has an embedded and adjustable “spaced repetition” algorithm to optimize learning.

If practice makes perfect, then learning and retention require steady repetition. This software automatically chooses repetition intervals for you. If you see a difficult card and mark it as such, it will show up again in a few minutes. But if you mark a card as easy, it won’t reappear again for days to weeks. By constantly moving through a deck of digital flashcards that are automatically optimized to test you on your weaknesses, students are able to efficiently and effectively memorize large amounts of material.

While I’ve only chosen to highlight some of the favorites among students, there are many other emerging medical education tools, most of which are centered on technologies of the modern digital age. Long gone are the days when students carried 30 pounds of books on their backs. The didactic PowerPoint lecture monologue is giving way to more interactive, informative and flexible ways of learning. Rote memorization, while not gone forever, is being made easier with new tools based on ancient techniques.

Medicine is at the center of this learning revolution. As medical education continues to innovate out of necessity in an effort to keep up with an ever-expanding body of knowledge, high school and college students will catch wind of these new tools, and how we learn could change forever.


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