The Essential Guide to Taking Notes in Medical School

This is an incredibly detailed blog post that should be bookmarked and read multiple times as and when needed. It has all the details you will ever need to take notes in medical school. Considering the time that has been spent creating this post, I would be grateful if you could share with your friends who might find this a valuable resource. Enjoy the ride!

Why Take Notes?

Before we start talking about how to take the notes, we need to know why taking notes is needed in the first place.

There are a few good reasons why you might want to make notes in medical school.

Firstly, as the content is so large, it’s sometimes hard to get a scope of the material initially. You need to know what you are going to learn (which is notoriously hard in medical school) before getting into the messy details.

Notes can help you do this.

By taking notes, you can go through all of the content in one swoop, helping you get an idea of what the important information is.

When you then go and review your notes and learn the material a second time, you will know which topics you should focus on.

It is common procedure in medical school to use Anki, and make flashcards out of all the points made. However, it is hard to know when first going through the material if something is important. The lecturer regards all of his slides with equal importance and so an unknowing medical student may fall into the trap of having thousands of flashcards for just one module.

As you can see from the screenshot below, you can see the number of lectures in just one module of medical school is insane.

A screenshot of just one of my modules from my first year of medical school

This Metabolism module was approximately 1/9th of the lectures that we were supposed to learn in the first year. This is on top of other material like Anatomy and Physiology labs, OSCE practice and PBLs.

Just how the medical school expected us to learn this gargantuan amount of knowledge in just 10 months is quite beyond me, which is probably why the pass mark is a reasonable 50%.

Making the lecture problem worse is how most professors end up creating such poorly worded slides that you could barely understand what was going on.

A slide from a lecture in my first year of medical school

Take the example above. For someone who has never seen the words “peristalsis” before, the slide is incredibly confusing and will just result in a Google search of the aforementioned word.

Making notes is an excellent way of consolidating all of the information in one place that you can always refer back to. It is significantly better than using someone else’s notes which, although sometimes better than using the universities own lectures and notes, can potentially lead you to learn too much or too little of what is required.

However, that’s not to say taking notes is the best and most perfect way to study.

There are many arguments to be had as to why taking notes can be a waste of time (which I go into depth later – link), but the main one is the amount of time it takes to make them.

In an ideal world, you would spend approximately 5 hours learning each lecture.

2 hours slowly going through the lecture for the first time, making nice and neat notes. 1-hour researching around the lecture, googling anything that you don’t know. 1-hour adding cards to Anki and reviewing them over the academic year. Then 1 final hour to go through the lecture a final time.

Doing this method would result in the maximum amount of value gained from the lecture.

Unfortunately, the maths just doesn’t work out.

If there are 200 lectures in a year, spending 5 hours on each lecture would result in 1000 hours spent reviewing lectures over 300 days. This ends up being 3 hours and 20 minutes per day (including weekends and holidays) of learning and reviewing lectures.

For 95% of medical students, this is simply impossible. It would require little-to-no social life and complete and utter dedication to the cause.

If you are willing to do this, then great. You will be a top student. Most of us, however, can’t be bothered.

So what do you do?

You focus on the important points.

Focus on the Important Points

The first thing to understand about taking notes in medical school is that you can’t know everything. That’s why it’s essential to know what you need to know. In this section, I’ll give you some tips on how to do just that.

I’m not going to lie, when I first started medical school, I had no idea what I was doing.

I went through the first week of lectures thinking that every point that the lecturer made was an essential piece of information. The growing anxiety that this caused over the first week was palpable.

This anxiety was made worse by our head of year, who gave a talk on the first day saying how anything that was mentioned in the lecture was examinable content.

My suggestion for you is to ignore them completely.

Although your university might have a slightly different way of providing you with the examinable content, it will always be the case that there will be more material than you could possibly learn.

So how do you know what information to pick out of the pile?

Well, unfortunately, a lot of it is to do with practice. As you go through more exams and experience sitting through dozens and dozens of lectures, you will slowly gain the skills needed to sieve through the content appropriately.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that you can do. If you put into practice the concepts that I mention below, it will help you reach mastery much quicker.

Listen

Firstly, listen to the lecturer. They often give clues as to what is commonly examined and can give you a headstart on your peers who aren’t bothered to listen to the lecturer.

If they say “now this is important” or “this is often examined” then your ears should perk up straight away.

If you are someone who cannot/doesn’t listen to every lecture (and I don’t blame you, I was the same), then this isn’t going to work for you. But don’t fear, there are still other ways of figuring out what is important.

Bold/Highlighted/Coloured Text

Now, this might seem obvious if you have been to hundreds of lectures, but it certainly anything but when you are first starting.

You should try and be aware of any text which has been formatted to stand out.

Here is an example of where this works well.

This slide has some text which is highlighted, allowing you to ignore the rest

The trap that students fall into is to read the normal text underneath and realise that it could come up in the exam, so take a note of it “just to be safe”. This is something you should try to avoid at all costs.

Read the information underneath for understanding purposes, but realise that you don’t need to know it.

However, there is one situation where you can’t use this technique.

That’s when the entire slide (and sometimes 80% of the lecture), is bolded/highlighted in some way.

Take the example below.

A slide which has most of the content highlighted/bolded

The lecturer has taken the liberty to highlight the entire slide in garish colours.

When this happens, you have a few options.

  1. Decide that the slide is not worth your time and just hope it doesn’t come up in the exam. This option is reserved for the people who are only looking to learn the most important points.
  2. Try and learn the entire slide. This is for those that get stressed about missing the smallest bit of information in case it comes up in the exam.
  3. Memorise the first few points which are highlighted and give it your best shot. Whether it comes up or not is in the hands of God. This is a method that I used to good effect in my first few years. It might not be ideal, but it can certainly work.

You should know that although the Universities say you need to know everything, in my estimation, you probably only need to know the top 30% most valuable/high yield information. If you can do this, you can probably pass your exam. This is because not all material is examined equally. Lecturers are more likely to test important pieces of information than niche, specialist information.

Therefore, you can get away with not going through all the highlighted points.

Look Out for Repeating Content

This is a technique that can be a bit more tricky to use as it requires you to already have gone through a lot of the material before you can apply it.

The way it works is you try and see if any diseases, drugs, treatments or even words are repeatedly mentioned throughout your module. Chances are that if you see the drug ramipril in 3 different lectures, you should probably know it.

You could probably use this more effectively when reviewing your notes at a later date.

Deciding What to Write On – Laptop vs Paper vs iPad

Another decision that needs to be made before you start making notes is what you are going to write on. In this section, we will be discussing the pros and cons of each method.

You should try and choose how you are going to take your notes at an early stage. If you don’t, you could end up spending dozens of hours simply re-writing your notes into another form.

However, you don’t be scared to change your note-taking half-way through the year just because of this. If you feel that by switching you will be more efficient and be able to take notes quicker and learn more from them, then you should change.

If I am honest, I have changed the way I make notes a countless number of times and I don’t think it has impacted me too much. Therefore, don’t feel like you are constrained to only one medium.

Now, for those that are unsure at which method is best, let’s break down each one so you can decide yourself what is best for you.

Laptop

Almost certainly the most popular form of writing notes, this is the “default” way to take notes for most medical students. Typing on a keypad is incredibly fast and cannot be beaten by any other form of typing. There is also an endless number of applications that you can use to make your notes from Notion to Evernote or Microsoft Word.

The thing which is especially great about typing notes is that you can easily transfer your notes into Anki flashcards. If you aren’t into using pre-made decks, then it’s the best option for you.

There are some downsides to using a Laptop.

It lacks the elegance and beauty of writing notes by hand. It can also result in you mindlessly typing away at the computer without thinking about what you are doing.

It is also a lot easier to be lazy when typing notes. Copy and pasting paragraphs takes a few clicks and saves a lot of time. However, it is unlikely to help you with understanding the material at hand.

  • The fastest way to make notes
  • Most students have a laptop
  • Has many App/website options
  • Can easily edit mistakes
  • Very easy to make Anki cards from typed notes
  • Organising files is fast and efficient

  • Lacks the beauty and elegance of other methods
  • It’s possible to aimlessly type everything the professor says
  • May fall into the trap of copy and pasting
  • Can easily get distracted

Overall, typing out notes is a great option for most medical students as you can easily and quickly make notes while having the flexibility to edit your mistakes in the future.

Paper

The pen and paper method is a centuries-old technique that enables creative design along with a stimulating method of note-taking. It helps you pay attention in class while also allowing you the freedom to draw and write in whichever way you like.

Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to edit any mistakes you make (unless you use a pencil or those special erasable inks), which means any mistakes are permanently attached to your notes.

  • Easy and cheap – all students have pen and paper
  • More likely to pay attention in a lecture
  • Forces you to go slower and therefore are less likely to regurgitate what the lecturer is saying
  • No way to get distracted
  • Editing is much more difficult
  • Has to be carried with you which can be cumbersome
  • Kills a lot of trees
  • The slowest way of making notes
  • Cannot copy and paste

I have used paper notes for many lectures and I have had a lot of success in paying attention where I would otherwise be falling asleep. Therefore, you should try out this method if you are finding the other forms of note-taking less effective.

iPad

The iPad has surged in popularity in recent years as the new and exciting tool for medical students. It can deliver beautiful digital notes while also having the ability to use a keyboard if required.

This may be the best option for many people as the cons of paper writing are almost eliminated by using a digital solution.

Apps like Notability (see my blog on Notability here) have transformed the way people take notes by enabling you to write on the lecture slides digitally which helps you focus on what the lecturer is saying.

  • Can use your hand to write which can be much more mentally stimulating than typing
  • Has the ability to be paired with a keyboard
  • Easy to edit mistakes
  • Can draw directly on the lecture slides without wasting hundreds of pieces of paper
  • Great range of writing apps to choose from
  • Syncs with other devices
  • Most students don’t already have an iPad
  • The standard (non-Pro) iPad can only be used with the old Apple Pencil
  • The cheapest iPad + Apple Pencil combination sells for $400 + $100
  • Can get distracted with other apps

After trying to think of more downsides than the ones listed above, I couldn’t. For those that want to spend some money and invest in their learning, buying a tablet is going to be a great option that combines the pros of typing and writing notes.

Writing Your Notes – Foundations and Structure

Now that you know the basics of how to learn in medical school and have decided what device to choose, let’s look at how to make the notes themselves. In this next section, we will be discussing how you should be formatting your notes.

An important part of making notes is knowing how you are going to organise them. There are two levels of organisation that you need to consider.

  1. Structure of the words – this is the page by page, what you are going to write down sort of organisation
  2. Structure of the module – this is how you are going to organise the entirety of your notes

Let’s start with how to write the notes.

Structure of the words

Depending on if you are making notes on your laptop, tablet or paper, this is going to vary. However, the general points will remain the same.

Firstly, you should try and only write down the important points as mentioned previously.

Writing the points in different colours depending on if it’s your opinion or the professors is a good idea. It will keep your notes from being boring and make the writing process enjoyable.

Using diagrams, arrows and boxes will also help you keep engaged and allow a nice flow (although this is difficult if you are typing your notes).

wonderfullifee:
“How I tackle notes. Yeah I know this page is filled with tons of random things but I seriously just let my brain loose and this is what happened.
”
A great example of using colour and diagrams in your notes (source). There are also some great tips which are mentioned here.

However, by far the most important thing to do when making notes is to write down questions. There are two sorts of questions you should be writing down:

  1. You should be writing questions about things that you don’t understand and want to research in-depth later. Once you research the questions later you can add the research onto your notes.
  2. On top of this, at the end of every page, you should write questions about the content on the page. This is essential for the review process which we will go into depth later (link).

Take a look at the example below for what I mean. This is writing questions about the content.

Making questions after your notes is incredibly important (taken from my active recall and spaced repetition blog).

Some people like to be incredibly detailed when writing their notes, and if that works for you then that’s great! You should continue. However, I would ensure you don’t go overboard, trying to incorporate every minute detail.

This person has made some beautiful notes. It takes a lot of time to write notes like these and whether they are worth the effort remains to be seen (source).

It comes down to one of the first things I mentioned; focusing on the important points. If the above example is actually a full modules worth of information, then I would say they have done a brilliant job. If not, I expect they have probably spent too long on their notes when they could have been spending their time actively recalling the information (see below) (link).

These notes have summarised the entire of the heart physiology onto one page, meaning they have limited themselves to writing the main points (source).

Other than the few points that I have mentioned, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to writing your own notes. You want to ensure that they are legible and well structured. At the end of the day, it is more important that you stay consistent with writing your notes that the individual details that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Structure of the Module

Organising your files is not as important as structuring the notes themselves. Most people can find their notes if they need them which is the main thing.

However, there are still some things you should be aware of.

Firstly, you need to be hierarchical.

Lectures should be at the lowest level of the hierarchy, with submodules above them and modules at the top.

This is a great example of someone who has organised their Notability folders nicely. They have CPR -> Pulm Week 3 -> Lectures as their three tiers of hierarchy (source).

If you can do this effectively then it will enable you to easily find your notes when needed.

Below is how I organise my files on my laptop using a hierarchical system.

How I organise my modules

Reviewing Your Notes – Understanding and Recalling

A lot of people believe that writing good, clean notes is the most important thing. However, knowing how to go through your notes effectively is just as important. And that’s what we will be discussing in this next section.

Once you have written your notes it is incredibly important that you review them in the right way. It is pointless to just re-read your notes.

You need to actively review your notes by using efficient study techniques like active recall and spaced repetition (see my full blog on the topic here).

There are several ways you can do this. Let’s start by considering the most popular method: Anki.

Anki

Although using Anki is not technically the same as reviewing notes, it is an extremely common way that medical students study which is why I am mentioning it here.

There are two ways to use Anki:

  • Create your flashcards
  • Use a pre-made deck

If you are going to type your notes, then it is going to be a lot easier to create your flashcards than in the other methods. However, don’t be deterred if you are using other methods. As it will take you longer, it will force you to make fewer flashcards. Making too many flashcards is a common mistake that medical students make which is something you will be able to avoid.

Using pre-made decks will save you a lot of time. You can download the Anking decks and suspend all the cards. You can then slowly un-suspend the cards as you review your notes.

I suggest using a combination of both. Pre-made decks have a lot of cards that you will need, by don’t have everything. Each university has a syllabus which means you will have to make your own flashcards eventually.

Here are some of my other blogs on Anki if you would like to learn more about it:

Questions and Answers

Another method that you can use if you don’t want to go through all the effort of using Anki every day is by making questions at the end of your notes and going through them when you want to review your notes.

Making questions at the end of your notes is a great way to use active recall.

The best way to do this is by ensuring your questions are mostly open-ended. This will allow you to recall a wide breadth of everything you wrote down.

After you make your notes, write down in your calendar when you want to review them next. I suggest reviewing all your notes from the week on Sunday and then again 3-8 weeks later (depending on how much you want to study).

Re-writing and Summarising Notes

Although this might not appeal to everyone due to the amount of time it would take, I can imagine that certain students would die by this method.

If you are going to re-write and summarise your notes, you still need to be using active recall.

Therefore, I would suggest that you do it in two steps. The first is to create a spider diagram where you write down everything you remember of the topic. Do this entirely from memory. As this is the intermediate step, I would recommend not spending more than 20 minutes on this (although you want to spend more time if you are summarising an entire module). You should aim to be quick rather than neat.

After creating this spider diagram, go through your notes and see what you missed out. Then, go through and create your more neat, fully-fledged notes. Again, you should be doing this from memory.

Put into your calendar that you should review this topic after a month and then 3 months. This will ensure you are utilising spaced repetition.

Reasons Not to Take Notes

I have talked at length about why you should take notes and how to take them. However, that’s not to say that they are the perfect thing for everyone. In this section, we will be talking about some of the downsides to taking notes in medical school.

Notes are great for some people.

I have seen many students sit through a day of lectures and still be writing notes while everyone around them has fallen asleep. They are great to keep you focused and allow you to structure the material in a way that is suitable for you.

However, there are certainly some downsides, which is what we are going to discuss now.

It Takes Too Long

Taking notes takes a lot of time. Unless you are speed demon and can finish all your notes within the length of the lecture, you will inevitably find yourself in the position of spending hours and hours writing notes that could be better spent on more effective ways of studying like doing questions.

Therefore, for those people that like to spend an excessive amount of time prettying up your notes, or would just prefer to not spend 10 hours a week writing notes, I would recommend you find other methods to study like Anki.

Other People Have Already Made Great Notes

No matter which medical school in the world you go to, with enough networking, you are sure to find someone in the older years who has already done the work and made all the years notes for you.

If that’s the case, then you might as well use them. This is great for people that want to have a slightly condensed version of the lectures that have already been gone through by someone else.

At some universities, there are notes which have been passed down through generations, resulting in notes that have been edited to the point of perfection.

Although, using pre-made notes can have its downsides.

It is not much different to reading a textbook meaning you don’t gain much by just reading it over and over.

However, if you are going to use your notes to make Anki cards or as a point of reference, then why bother spending hundreds of hours making notes when someone else has already made them for you?

There Are Better Ways to Study

There have been quite a few studies that show that making notes is not the best way to study. It is too passive when compared to flashcards, answering questions and Anki. Things like Passmedicine or UWorld are questions banks that are fantastic resources which will almost certainly be more active.

However, that’s not to say that there is no evidence behind. There are studies which show that taking notes improves student learning. Not only this but the more notes that a student takes the better it is.

If you want to learn more about the science behind note taking then I suggest reading this excellent article by Jennifer Gonzalez.

So why make notes in the first place?

Well, it is still good to keep your focus in lectures and can help go through all the material systematically. Going straight into questions can be daunting for some, so making notes is a good gateway into a new topic.

My Experience With Taking Notes – A Story of Success and Failure

I have succeeded and failed many times at taking notes in medical school. That’s what I will be discussing now.

Over the last 4 years of medical school, I have gone through periods of taking notes, then abandoning them, then studiously taking notes once again.

It is, in all honesty, an unhealthy relationship.

The reason it has been difficult for me is to do with my mentality.

Initially, I would go into a lecture hall with the pure intention of listening to every word and capturing as much as I could on notes. This turned out to be way too much effort and I stopped taking notes for many weeks.

After realising that I couldn’t pay attention to more than the first 10 minutes of the lecture without falling asleep, I tried another time.

Again, I found it too much effort. And so the cycle repeated.

Looking back, I have probably only taken notes for less than 20% of the lectures I have ever been to. I don’t regret it as I have passed every year so far. Nonetheless, I can say without question that I would have learnt much more and done much better in my exams if I had stopped being lazy and just taken notes.

The reason I am writing this section is mainly for the people who find themselves in my shoes. If that is you, don’t worry. You don’t have to write notes like a madman to be considered a medical student.

In fact, it is the thing that I have not mentioned once in this article that makes a good medical student. And that’s talking with patients.

As long as you pass all your exams, you shouldn’t worry about taking notes. Being a good medical student is about being a good doctor. If you want to succeed in your career, focusing on communication skills is the way to go.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here I will discuss some of the common questions people have about taking notes in medical school. The answers will be short and sweet so that you don’t waste your time.

Should You Take Notes While in a Lecture?

Taking notes in the middle of the lecture is common practice. It is useful as it helps you stay focused on the lecture and prevents that sleepy brain from daydreaming.

I found it a lot of effort and wasn’t able to stay consistent with it. If you feel that you can take notes in every lecture then go for it, otherwise, you can always just watch the recording in your own pace.

Does Any of the Advice Change for Online Lectures?

No.

Whether you are going through material online or in-person shouldn’t affect if you take notes. The only time it can affect it is if you prefer to go to a lecture and just listen and take notes at home from the online material.

In my opinion, that’s a great way of going about it.

Should You Take Notes for Anatomy?

Anatomy is one of those subjects that it is hard to take notes for.

It is easier on an iPad and laptop as you can just get a picture and annotate it, however, for paper notes it is next to impossible.

I would suggest that you take written notes where possible and then use Anki as your main resource.

Do You Suggest Any Apps/Resources to Use for Taking Notes?

If using a tablet I would suggest Notability or Goodnotes (see our Notability blog here).

I would suggest Notion if using a laptop.

There are plenty of others that are available, but in truth, it’s about the notes themselves rather than the app. As long as the app is good enough (and the above recommendations are more than good enough), then don’t worry about it too much.

I’m Struggling to Take Notes for Every Lecture. What Should I Do?

Don’t panic.

It happens to everybody.

Reassess if taking notes is right for you. Figure out if you could get the same results by using someone else’s notes or using Anki instead.

If you feel like notes are the only thing that works for you but are still falling behind, then try and cut down on your notes. Tell yourself that you will only make 10 bullet points per lecture and go from there.


That’s everything!

If you found this article useful, then all I ask is you share it with your friends and colleagues who might also mind it valuable.

Have an amazing day.

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