Considering all that is riding on your certification exam, passing it is of the utmost importance. It is, by all measures, the most rigorous test you will ever take. So how do you best prepare? Are board review courses helpful or are there other strategies for success?

A quick scan of nearly any thread on the Student Doctor Network shows that yes, board review courses are a must when preparing for certification or recertification in any specialty. One comment that best reflects the consensus of opinion concerned the best way to study for the American Board of Family Medicine exam. The thread showed the variety of study tools that are recommended for success:

“The inservice questions from the past three years are a really good review option. Study the topics you were weak on and any topic you want to improve on after that. Perhaps a good question bank. If you have been out for awhile then perhaps a review course. If you have been reading the AAFP journal you will do well especially if you go back to some of the key topics and review them.”

Most specialty associations recommend that doctors use a multi-faceted approach to studying the certification or recertification exam. Recommended tools include;

  • Interactive case-based studies
  • Flashcards for self-testing
  • Board review courses
  • Comprehensive questions that include:
    • Detailed up-to-date explanations with each question
    • Must know questions and answers for the boards
    • Customizable practice exams by topic
    • Videos, images, and multiple choice options

Any board review system must provide efficient study tools that reduce study time and increase success on questions.

There is a strong correlation between the number of questions physicians take to practice and their actual pass rate. This has been proven by numerous studies that examined the benefits of various studying strategies. One study published by The Association for the Study of Medical Education, found that “repetitive testing (using flashcards) is a more potent learning strategy than repetitive studying for short‐term but not long‐term knowledge retention in clinical medical students”. While long-term knowledge retention is essential for practicing physicians, short-term retention of knowledge is certainly helpful when it comes to testing.

Another study published in Science found that repeated testing is much more successful for knowledge retention that repeated studying. The study said, “Repeated studying after learning had no effect on delayed recall, but repeated testing produced a large positive effect. In addition, students' predictions of their performance were uncorrelated with actual performance. The results demonstrate the critical role of retrieval practice in consolidating learning”. It could be argued that study questions that are comprehensive in nature and vetted by experienced physicians are the best form of self-testing.

A study on metacognitive strategies published in the journal Memory underscored the power of self-testing. It said, “Basic research on human learning and memory has shown that practising retrieval of information (by testing the information) has powerful effects on learning and long-term retention. Repeated testing enhances learning more than repeated reading, which often confers limited benefit beyond that gained from the initial reading of the material.”

These studies support the power and efficacy of repeated self-testing that is available through board review courses and the questions they contain. When you consider board review courses, look for the ones that have:

  • A solid record of higher-than-average pass rates.
  • Content from major publishers
  • Content and review from faculty at top teaching programs
  • Input and review from leading specialists and physician contributors

Taking your certification or recertification exam can be an exercise in sleepless nights, too much chocolate and way too much caffeine. With the right strategies and board review course in place, it can also be a strategic exercise in highly efficient and effective self-testing to pass the exam of your life.

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