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Four Principles of Effective Learning for Medical Students

At medical school, you will be faced with large volumes of content than you need to understand and memorise, in a relatively short space of time, particularly around exam season.

We think it’s best to shorten the time needed for this revision by using effective learning methods. By following these methods, we hope you can not only boost your grades, but spend less time revising and more time following your other passions too!

One aspect of medical education that can be quite tricky is figuring out how to strike a balance between the content you learn in lectures, and the real-life application of these concepts. We’ve found that using the ‘FAIR’ system helps make this transition from lecture theatre to ward much smoother. The FAIR system is as follows:

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Let’s take a look at each of these principles below:

1. Feedback

Presenting your first patient to a senior colleague can be daunting. You will be nervous before doing it, but remember, every doctor once had to present their first patient to their senior at one point. So rather than viewing this as a terrifying situation, try to view it as a learning opportunity.

You have the chance to talk to an expert about a patient, and ask them for feedback about the information that you have given. Imagine how much you could learn by repeating this process compared to reading a textbook, or sitting in a lecture theatre!

For these conversations to be as helpful for you as possible, remember to be receptive to feedback. The more receptive you are, and the more willing you are to learn, the more you can take from the situation. Try not to take offence to any constructive criticism, your senior is trying to help you become the best doctor you can be!

Our top tip for this section would be to get as much supervised practice as possible. Ask your colleagues in senior years or your friends to do some CPSA/OSCE practice prior to your exam. Being receptive to feedback will help you to make minor adjustments that can help to both impress your examiner on CPSA day, and better treat patients when you get the chance to.

2. Active Learning

Many of you reading this have probably heard this phrase mentioned by your peers, or even lecturers in the past, but what actually is active recall and why should you be using it?

Active recall is a revision technique, not a learning technique. You must already understand information before trying to apply active recall to it. Let’s take medications involved in nephrology as an example. If I asked you to explain the mechanism behind potassium-sparing diuretics, could you? Some of you reading could recall that information with ease, others maybe not at all. However, if you could recall the information, but it required a bit more effort than a simple answer, your active recall is now working and being strengthened. Every time you practise active recall, in theory, you decrease the amount of time needed to recall a particular piece of information.

Okay, great, but how can I use active recall?

I couldn’t use active recall to teach myself the mechanisms behind the different classes of diuretics, however, I could use active recall to test myself on how well I knew the different classes once I had studied them. Active recall works on the principle of remembering information that you knew at one point in time, without using notes or a book to help you remember it. Anytime we take a test, we practise active recall. We have to recall information stored in our long-term memory to apply it to the question. Question banks, flashcards and quizzes are all revision methods that use the power of active recall.

What revision methods should I base the majority of my revision on?

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    Active recall quizzes

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    Active recall flashcards

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    Active recall question banks

The opposite of active recall is passive revision. This is learning that doesn’t lead to much learning, leading to inefficient revision sessions and often longer time spent revising. Not ideal! Here are some revision methods that we should try to spend less time on:

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    Watching videos

Note how we said that the points above are revision methods that we should avoid, not learning methods. For example, watching videos and reading can be great learning tools, but not revision tools!

Have a look here for some more information on active recall research on active learning

So why is it important to use effective revision methods?

The information you learn or will learn at medical school is cumulative, meaning it remains relevant throughout your profession.

Let’s face it, no matter how dull or interesting a topic of a lecture may be, retaining the information after having had the information verbally drilled into you for a couple of hours seems pretty impossible. Instead, you want to try and foster curiosity and discovery, and actively seek out methods to address the gaps in your knowledge.

Active learning describes a broad range of learning activities, from student-patient clinical workshops to testing yourself using various medical exam question banks. Essentially, it means that rather than just simply listening to your lecturer and making notes, you participate in interactive learning techniques that make you think actively about the topic. Below summarises the key differences between the two learning methods.

Active Learning

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    Generating your own learning strategies

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    Questioning gaps in your knowledge to gain understanding

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    Adopting feedback to improve your learning outcomes

Passive Learning

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    Waiting for instruction or direction

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    Blindly accepting facts and making notes

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    Ignoring feedback

It can be challenging to consistently think about how new information and skills can fit into your existing knowledge. So when you come across a certain piece of information that you think is worth noting, instead of just consuming it and carrying on, why not stop and try to recall what you just learnt?

There are many interactive learning tools and online resources available to you (e.g., technology-enhanced learning). These are intended to supplement your university lessons and can provide more informal and engaging exercises designed to promote independent learning and develop clinical reasoning skills. Other useful tools include the use of visual aids such as concept maps, mind maps and interleaving.

3. Individualisation

Remember that everyone learns in different ways. The techniques that your peers swear by may not work for you at all! You may have a friend who only uses textbooks and achieves top grades in every exam, while another friend who has sworn never to buy a textbook yet still manages to do well.

Our top tip here is to find what works for you, and to try new ideas as well. Don’t be afraid to give different revision techniques a try. We constantly learn how to improve our learning - think about it like a skill you can develop, rather than a routine set in stone. Your university may not cater to your preferred learning styles, but feel free to look elsewhere for other resources. Whether that may be through talking through topics with friends, watching case-based videos, or making flashcards or any other active learning method that helps promote your learning.

4. Relevance

Ever been told by your tutors to spend more time on the wards? Despite this becoming a meme, there is some truth to it. We tend to remember concepts better when we have actually seen them, or remember conditions better when we can think of a real-life patient.

The information you read or learn must be relevant in order to stick.

When you meet patients for the first time, try to come up with questions you’d like to answer about their condition. By finding the answers to your questions, you become more alert and receptive to new information, allowing your brain to absorb information readily.

For example, let’s say you’re on placement as a 1st year medical student and on a gastroenterology ward for the first time, seeing a patient who has been admitted with alcohol excess.

The doctor you’re shadowing will ask you why alcohol-dependent patients are prescribed vitamins such as thiamine (vitamin B1). You may think that they may be deficient in the vitamin, and leave it at that.

That doctor, then, informs you that the reason thiamine is needed in such patients is due to the impaired thiamine absorption that occurs in the intestine due to alcohol damage.

Although this information may seem irrelevant at the time, you may find yourself trying to answer a multiple-choice question about the vitamin needs of an alcohol-dependent patient, with thiamine as an obvious answer.

Yes, you may have remembered this by studying the topic, but more often, you’ll find yourself being able to remember where that knowledge came from, and how it was applied in practice.

As such, throughout your medical training, it is important that you continuously reflect on the relevance of a topic and how you can translate your learning experience into effective practice.

The outcome of this will be a better appreciation of the ways in which you can take information from the learning environment into the clinical environment.


We have summed up the above key principles of effective learning into a comprehensive, memorable FAIR structure to allow medical students to improve their knowledge and clinical expertise through discipline and a commitment to learning.

By applying the elements of the four principles, we are confident you can become a more well-rounded and mindful student, capable of addressing the many challenges that lie ahead with confidence.

How Quesmed Applies the Principles of Effective Teaching

Whether you’re preparing for an AKT or an CPSA exam, you can rely on the next-generation learning platforms available at to help you learn medicine the smart way.

We offer a comprehensive array of thousands of questions and flashcards, 10,000 medical school exam questions, 15,000 flashcards, and hundreds of video tutorials on our dedicated website and offline mobile app.

Register, choose a plan and embark on your journey through medical school with a useful interactive learning platform designed by experienced medical professionals.

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