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« What kind of learner are you? | Main | Return of the Med Student »
Sunday
Sep182011

The Whiteboard vs. the Notecard

Hey everyone, over the years I’ve found that premeds are always looking for a way to get ahead in studying or looking for a better way in general. Some are willing to go far to get the grades and others are willing to go even farther to get the grades they want.

What happens: a few students around me find out I’m doing well in a course or on an exam and they’re trying their hardest to figure out “what they’re doing wrong.” And when they ask me what to do, I do the best I can to tell them what they need to do to get the A. I’ve seen a lot of posts explaining you need to do this or that, but I’m gonna take a different approach. There are two types of studying styles that I’ve seen, the notecard and the whiteboard.

The Notecard

  • Memorize facts, figures, molecules, organisms, reactions, etc.
  • Advantages: can learn it very quickly; don’t need to study as much overall.
  • Disadvantages: tend to forget very quickly; don’t understand what you’re studying.

The notecard is a term I’m using for rote memorization. It’s when we make notecards, or a word document of terms and concepts, or a PowerPoint of everything we need to know. People have their own way of specializing them. Some people just write them out, some people type them out, and some people have key chains for them. It’s all for the same purpose to memorize terms or words as quickly as possible or at the very least be able to recognize them on an exam to get the correct answer.

With this style, you also hyper concentrate and become very efficient. You have less time to study so there’s no time for fluff. You cram everything that your brain can handle in a small amount of time so you can get the most points possible on the exam, preferably 90% worth. You do this for both study styles but even more so for this one because there’s literally no time.

The Whiteboard

  • Figuring things out, finding patterns, memorizing concepts.
  • Advantages: tend to know it very well and remember it for longer (long-term potentiation); can understand what you’re studying.
  • Disadvantages: take longer to initially learn

The whiteboard is a term I’m using for conceptual memorization. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t perfected diffusion of ideas (from professor to student) so we still have to memorize. Conceptual memorization is learning the concept behind subjects rather than memorizing each individual problem or event.  For example, in a class viewed as pure memorization, Gross Anatomy, it’s a lot easier to memorize what the radius is because it makes learning where the nerves and vessels are a lot easier. The radius refers to a bone on the lateral side of your forearm. So, the radial nerves and the radial vessels are all in relation to the outer part of your arm. That’s also where they came up with the radial pulse. This makes a lot more sense than memorizing that the radial nerve is on the lateral part of your forearm and then memorizing the radial artery is on the lateral (outside) part of your forearm.

Seems like a no brainer right? Let’s apply it to a course we all have to take in premed, organic chemistry. There’s a term called mechanisms. Mechanisms, in basic terms, are recipes for how a reaction works or how electrons move about atoms. One mechanism is called halogenation where it adds a halogen to a carbon chain (bunch of carbons connected). The halogens include Br, I, Cl, right? We could memorize that bromine adds to a carbon or iodine adds to a carbon or chlorine adds to a carbon. But it would make a lot more sense to memorize that some halogen (designated with a letter X) adds to a carbon. We can memorize one type of reaction rather than five different ones. To learn every specific example for every molecule would be crazy, it would exponentially increase to an impossible amount to memorize.

The Dual

So, which ones better? We all have our own ways of studying. If you’re an upperclassman than you already have a good idea of what’s been working. If you’re an underclassman then you’re still trying to figure out which way is best for you. I have a preference for conceptual memorization (whiteboarding) because it’s always worked for me, it’s always worked for the classmates I know who do it, and it’s always worked for the classmates I know who didn’t do it and converted.

However, to say that notecards don’t work would be lying. I knew someone who only used notecards for organic chem and he made it through with a good grade. I know a few other people that do the same thing; they memorize for the exam, do very well, but can’t tell you that much about it afterward.

Eighty/Twenty: I think your best bet is an 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time you should be doing conceptual memorization and twenty percent of the time, rote memorization. If you have an exam every month, about three and a half weeks should be dedicated to learning concepts with some memorization in between (take out the whiteboard or a piece of paper and write down concepts, reactions, mechanisms, biology concepts, figure things out, find patterns) and then a few days before the exam should be mostly memorization and partial concept memorization (near the exam you’re more interested in taking out those notecards and  memorizing little details and figuring out those last few concepts you just went over in lecture). At the end it’s more rote than conceptual because at that point it doesn’t matter so much that you learn the material just that you do well on the exam.   

Classmates always want to know which one is better but it honestly just depends on what works for you. The (roughly) eighty/twenty rule has always worked for me and the people I study with. We’ve always consistently made the grades and know a decent amount after the course is over. But, if it doesn’t work for you then I would recommend against it; in the end, always do what works for you.

Take care, everyone. School is almost here for a lot of us and we all wish you the best of luck or skill in the upcoming months.

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Reader Comments (1)

Helpful article. Successful students I talk to have a lot of success with using a personal whiteboard for remembering things such as reaction mechanisms. I think it's an indispensable tool. I wouldn't recommend "memorization" per se for reaction mechanisms, I would make sure that students really understand the "why" of what's going on in each step.

For lists of vocab or other things to do rote memorization, it's easy to make lists on memorize.com . It has a great way of repeating answers you missed so that you can make sure that you get them. It's free to set up and use, I used it when I was learning languages as well.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames

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