Medical Students… Is literacy an issue for you?

I hate to break it to you, but you don’t know how to read. 

Hm...; is literacy an issue for you? Alexander Muse via Compfight

Now, don’t get all offended. You can read just fine, I know. You’ve read Tolkien, and here you are in medical school, so that proves you’re an expert student, right? Right, but…

You’re going to be asked to read volumes of material that would choke a T-Rex. Or at least a gorilla. Are you ready for that? How much of what you’ve read until now have been research articles? This is the new age. You’re being trained to be a junior scientist, and no one is going to teach you how to read these things.

Look at informational text. Do you start at the first page, first paragraph and start highlighting? Are your pages all flourescent?

Take a look at this stuff.

And remember that dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning disorders exist in medical school classrooms. Maybe your buddy. Maybe you.

OK. As a short little primer, because all this is EVEN MORE stuff you “Have To” read, I’ll give you a real “Reader’s Digest” version.

Never approach reading an informational chapter without a couple of things: a pen, and a highlighter. Now, put your highlighter down. Start reading with the summary, or conclusion. Yes, START at the END! You won’t understand much of it. What this does, though, is give you a lot of subconscious, and some very conscious(!) questions. You then go back to the beginning, and read all the subheadings, italicized entries, figures and tables. You’ll find when you get to the end, and read the summary AGAIN, that you’ll understand a wee bit more, but not likely much. THIRD time through the chapter, force yourself to just read the first sentence of each paragraph, ending again by reading that summary. On your fourth time through, skim it. Force your eyes to move ever forward, never going back wards to read parts of sentences. As you get better at this, an improvement, actually a speed reading skill, is to look at more than one word at once. The only way to do this is to stop sub-vocalizing (saying words in your head).

After you’re through the chapter for your fourth time, you may want to go back with a couple of surgical strikes on issues you’re a bit mixed up on. These, you read with a fine toothed comb.

During your “skimming” reading, mark the borders of the pages with some thoughts. One standard way is to put a question mark against something that you could disagree with, an exclamation mark where something is surprising. Designate material that is found to be interesting (!), objectionable (X) , questionable or unclear (?), or noteworthy/ previously unknown (*). Some people put a check mark (√) on something they know, a “plus sign” (+) on something they want to know more about. This is sort of the INSERT system, of which there are variances, which you can read more about if you want. Realize you can also actually write your own thoughts in the border. (That might be the absolute best insertion!)

Actually writing a summary is a proven technique. Force yourself to condense no less than 5 pages of text to one page. When studying, try to summarize the summaries. Actually, this is a good lecture technique: unfortunately, medical students often face a lecture with fire hose volumes of material. Retention really goes up when you can immediately go and summarize your notes after a lecture, or as soon as you can at least. I know there’s coffee to get! Try to write down what you understand to be the overall general idea, the basic skeleton of knowledge that you must have. At the end of the week, summarize your summaries. At the end of the month, summarize your weekly summaries. Get the idea?

Am I saying to not worry about all the nuance?

Maybe. Don’t get me wrong here, you need all that stuff. What I’m talking about here is learning. Getting it in your head. The nice thing is, you’re not going from a lecture on astrophysics to one on botany, then to Greek Art appreciation. This is all the human body. Medicine is all linked up. You’re going to get it. Everything cross links, and you never stop learning it. “It” is the human body, the human being in all its complexity. You’ll never know “it”. However, as you keep going, more stuff will stick on.

But the muscles have to stick on to the skeleton.


Amoriggi, H. & Shaw, K. (2005/2006). Can SpeedReading / eSpeedReading skills training enhance the overall learning/ elearning productivity of 21st century medical students and surgical residents? International Journal of Learning. 12(12): 157-170.


Gottesman, A.J., & Hoskins, S.G. (2013). CREATE cornerstone: introduction to scientific thinking, a new course for STEM-interested freshmen, demystifies scientific thinking through analysis of scientific literature. CBE Life Sci Educ. 12(1): 59-72. doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-11-0201.

Round, J.E., & Campbell, A.M. (2013). Figure facts: encouraging undergraduates to take a data-centered approach to reading primary literature. CBE Life Sci Educ. 12(1):39-46. doi: 10.1187/cbe.11-07-0057.