Every medical student knows that it’s almost impossible to learn all exam-relevant material simply by attending class. Students need additional learning resources in order to be appropriately prepared for their exams. For this purpose, books are the oldest of all sources and are still an invaluable resource for every learner.
Today e-learning content has become an important, almost essential, additional resource for medical students worldwide. E-learning is a broad, vague, concept. Which is why, in the following, I would like to explain how medical students can efficiently and effectively integrate e-learning content into their studying routine.
What are the advantages of e-learning?
First and foremost, the obvious one. Digitalizing learning material saves an immense amount of space in comparison to the storage of traditional print content. A student can lug around 40 pounds of books in a backpack or effortlessly carry a tablet with the same content.
Temporal and spatial flexibility: when the class is over, the professor is gone. All students have left are their notes. If they have doubts or don’t remember something, then it’s up to them to look for a source of further information. When learning material is available in digital format, however, it is possible to access it repeatedly and at any time. Books may also have this added value, but searching through pages and pages of material is time consuming and inefficient.
Interactivity: digital content provides new possibilities for interaction between instructors and students. Instructors can answer questions and receive direct feedback from their students. Digital learners can, for example, ask the lecturer questions or exchange ideas with other users—and they can do this at any time of the day, without being limited by the short time frame of a traditional lecture. Furthermore, it also enables the facilitators to simulate exams, allowing for instantaneous feedback.
What is the best e-learning format?
E-learning has many different display formats. By now, though, two specific types have established themselves on the top based on their popularity and effectiveness:
1. Video learning: studies have shown (1,2) that audiovisual learning is perceived as being more appealing to learners and results in better retention rates than studying by reading textbooks alone. Video learning is particularly effective when the educator actually faces the camera and directly addresses the learners, while being assisted by visually appealing images. As opposed to the screencast (images with audio narration), video learning allows the learners to benefit from the educators addressing them directly as well as from their facial expressions and gestures.
2. Interactive quiz formats: by now, most board exams are carried out digitally. It is therefore an undeniably efficient approach to support the students’ learning process by providing them with interactive questions and the possibility to simulate digital examinations.
Exam prep cramming or comprehensive review course?
The following is a typical learning pattern of many students: “I want to take the USMLE Step 1 in three months. So I will now look for e-learning resources to help me prepare for the exam.”
This is an understandable and reasonable approach. Board exams are so complex that no student will be able to avoid an intense preparation phase. For many, this means a huge amount of stress. As the exam date approaches, students are more likely to fall into atypical pattern of mindlessly memorizing facts instead of attempting to conceptually understand the material.
I am convinced that the exam preparation phase would be much more effective and less stressful if, for example, students saw the first two years of med school as continuous exam preparation period for the USMLE Step 1.
The reasoning is this, by using e-learning resources to support them during their studies, medical students will learn essential concepts and the connections between different medical fields (for example, pathology with physiology and anatomy) right from the start. This solid foundation will make it much easier for students to a) remember facts and, especially, b) adjust to new situations. Regardless of how many practice questions you have answered, the real exam will confront you with challenges that are new to you and that can only be overcome if you have acquired a clear understanding of the basic concepts concepts behind the questions. Besides, as important as test scores are, the purpose of a medical education is ultimately to train good physicians—and they should have mastery of the concepts.
Comprehensive Review course—how?
The idea of considering the first two years in med school as exam preparation for the USMLE sounds simple at first. However, a medical student’s day is also only 24 hours long, and learning medical concepts comprehensively requires more effort than exclusively memorizing high-yield facts. How can that work?
In this context, a good e-learning product should demand as little of the student’s precious time as possible—while also requiring as much of it as it is necessary to truly understand a subject. For this, the e-learning resource has to adapt to the student’s learning and movement behavior with regard to both the content as well as to the technology. And this is how it’s done:
High-yield content AND in-depth training: these two keywords do not necessarily exclude each other, because in-depth concepts can also be taught in a “high-yield way”: the content must exclusively include exam-relevant concepts and these have to be explained in a concise and precise manner. Content which is traditionally considered to be “high-yield”—i.e. relevant keywords, without comprehensive concepts—is also included in the learning content and can be specifically addressed if this is necessary.
The key to success for a comprehensive review course is therefore the ability to combine high-yield content with in-depth training. Both elements together will enable students to answer those questions correctly, which other students will have wrong, and thus get a much higher score on the exam.
A good learning platform further supports this learning process technologically. There are two main goals:
1. Save time while studying: the learning platform can provide helpful features which will allow learners to use the study time as effectively as possible. They range from the very basics, such as a simple and intuitive navigation, a good search function or quick access, to features within the video player, like the playback speed button which can speed up the video without distorting the pitch of the educator’s voice.
2. Optimally integrate learning into daily life: the key word here is mobile learning. The learning content has to be (comfortably!!) available on all devices. This includes, for example, displaying it on a specifically developed app, allowing synchronization on all devices (the ability of, for example, starting a video on the laptop and then resuming it on the tablet at the exact same point where you left off), and providing an offline mode which enables to access learning content even without Internet connection (for example, on a plane).
Don’t spend too much time on YouTube!
YouTube is a relevant source of information—especially for medical students. It is important, however, to pay attention to what you do there. For example, YouTube is great in order to search for meta topics such as “How to schedule your day in med school”, “What tips are there on how to answer test questions?”, or “What are good resources to prepare for the exam?”. YouTube channels like DocOssareh provide invaluable support which has made them very popular.
When searching for the real, specific learning content, however, it is crucial to be able to rely on professionally oriented platforms. Professional oriented platforms are complete, interactive and provide the material that is all relevant for the board exams. Learning material on Youtube is neither complete nor all relevant.
The differences between a professional e-learning content provider, such as Lecturio, and free content offered by Youtube includes the following:
Completeness: on YouTube it is often necessary to gather individual snippets of content and put these bits of data together to form a whole story—which can be a lot of work. Also, you can never be sure if there is something missing or perhaps even incorrect. The goal of good professional providers, on the other hand, is to make exam-relevant content available in a comprehensive manner, delivered by elite educators who are familiar with the requirements of board exams.
Easy navigation and progress documentation: good medical learning platforms will provide the content in a well-structured manner, offer navigation tools and display the learning progress.
Interactivity: professional platforms enable a type of interaction which is not possible on YouTube. For example, the aforementioned quiz questions, or the possibility to generate individual study plans.
Medical students cannot afford to learn with incomplete material, or waste their time searching for content which ultimately won’t provide neither comprehensive nor structured learning possibilities.
(2) Problem-Based Learning: Exploiting Knowledge of How People Learn to Promote Effective Learning by E. J. Wood in Bioscience Education E-Journal, Vol. 3