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How to Learn

How Learning Works



Learning is a constant process during medical school, and we will take in a massive amount of information over a few short years. Before diving in and trying to absorb everything, it is useful to have an understanding of how we learn. This can then guide your note-taking, studying and overall approach to university.
This section will outline different types of thinking, types of knowledge, learning styles and key resources to optimise each dimension of learning.

Types of Cognition

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that can guide both teaching and learning. Integrating different levels of the taxonomy into your learning can enable a comprehensive understanding on the topic and application in a practical sense.
  • Bloom’s taxonomy includes six categories of learning: 
  • Remember - the ability to recall facts and simple ideas E.g. remember a list of causes for chest pain; write lists; memorise; repeat things
  • Understand - the ability to explain conceptsCategorise information into a greater structure; discuss with others; compare concepts; explain
  • Apply - the ability to use information in new situationsAnswer a question or solve a problem
  • Analyse - the ability to connect ideas togetherExperiment
  • Evaluate - the ability to justify a position relating to a topicAppraise the evidence; defend an idea
  • Create - the ability to produce new work on a topicDevelop and investigate a hypothesis; assemble information in a new way; write about a topic
  • How Can Bloom’s Taxonomy Help Me Learn? 

  • You can use Bloom-type questions to prompt deeper thinking on a topic, and ensure that you are not just learning at a superficial level. By using higher-level thinking skills you will be more likely to retain concepts because you have a deeper understanding and ability to apply, evaluate, analyse and even create new thinking. 
Integrating different levels can broaden your learning experiences - this can alleviate the boredom of trying to simply retain facts. 

Types of Knowledge

Knowledge may be subclassified into several different types, or dimensions. In order to succeed as a medical student and develop a mature understanding of the medical field, you will need a good measure of each of the different types of knowledge below.
  • Factual Knowledge

  • During your time at medical school you will learn a massive number of facts. This may include definitions, lists and details. This may include facts about anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology or clinical medicine.
This type of knowledge is best learned using repeated exposure and testing. Useful resources for optimising factual knowledge are notes, multiple choice questions and flashcards.
  • Conceptual Knowledge

  • This type of knowledge includes understanding the underlying principles of a topic and how elements fit together with the bigger picture. An example of this is how the cardiovascular system pumps blood around the body, and how each part interrelates. Additionally, conceptual knowledge may include classifications and categories of information, such as the types of bacteria or the organ systems in the body.
Concepts are often best learned visually, through diagrams or mind maps, or from listening to others’ explanations.
  • Procedural Knowledge

  • This relates to learning skills, procedures and algorithms. Examples of procedural knowledge include how to take a history, examine a patient or insert a cannula.

While it can be useful to watch others to start with, the best way to gain procedural knowledge is to practice the skill in question - over and over until you have mastered it! 
  • Metacognitive Knowledge

  • Metacognition refers to higher order thinking about strategy, conditional knowledge about cognitive tasks, and knowledge of self. Working on your metacognitive knowledge can help you to perform better, achieve more and improve well-being.
There are a wide range of resources for improving metacognitive knowledge. This may include reading articles (such as this one!) and other written resources, practicing mindfulness and reflecting on past situations.

Learning Styles

  • Classically, the idea has been that people learn in a particular way - they have a “learning style” that works for them. The learning styles most commonly mentioned are:
  • Visual - use of images, graphic organisers, learning maps etc.
  • Auditory - listening and speaking, particularly in lectures and group discussions
  • Reading / writing - note-taking, reading, extended writing
  • Kinesthetic - hands-on learning, or learning by doing
The concept of learning styles has more modernly come to be thought of as a “neuromyth”. In a study of self-identified ‘verbalisers’ and ‘visualisers’, participants felt that they performed better when using their preferred study method (word pairs or picture pairs), when in fact there was no difference in objective performance regardless of whether a participant’s identified learning style matched the learning style they used (Knoll). 
In another study of 426 anatomy students, self-identified learning styles and actual learning strategies were often misaligned, and there was no difference in learning outcomes when the learning strategies aligned with learning styles (Hussmann).
Thinking that one learning style that suits you can lead to the development of a fixed intelligence mindset. In reality, multiple modalities should be used to learn the massive amount of information in medical school. Learning the same thing in several ways can help to improve your retention even further.
Develop and use your own profile of styles, and apply different styles. Your set of styles may depend on the particular material to be learnt, your needs and the time you have available. 

Types of Resources

There are many resources available to help you learn during medical school.
  • People

    While typically much of your learning will come from your medical school staff, there are many other people who you can learn from. Potential people to learn from include:
  • University staff - lecturers, tutors, facilitators
  • Medical student peers - team-based learning sessions, peer tutoring groups, shared notes
  • Hospital staff - junior doctors, nurses, allied health staff
  • Written Materials

    For those who learn well by reading information, written resources can be very useful. Additionally, such resources can be a source of information for note-taking. Potential written resources include:
  • Lecture slides - these are often supplied by the lecturer.
  • Textbooks - however, try not to get too bogged down by buying textbooks. Often these are accessible through your library either online or in print, and will only be needed for a specific topic over a short period of time.
  • Journal articles - it is often useful to go straight to the source and read a key guideline or seminal article.
  • Websites - there are a large number of websites on both medical sciences and clinical medicine topics. These may be free (FOAMed), paid or a combination of both.
  • Apps - similarly, there is a multitude of medical apps available to assist with both medical science and clinical topics.
  • Visual Materials

    If your tend to learn topics visually rather than through reading, many resources are available, such as:
  • Lecture recordings - try watching these at 1.5x or 2x speed!
  • YouTube / other videos - there are many free or paid medical video services that teach topics and an extremely easy to understand way
  • Infographics - these can present information in an interesting way to help you to learn a topic quickly, or from another angle
  • Auditory Materials

  • Instead of listening to music at home or during your commute, consider listening to medical podcasts or lecture recordings. For those who learn by listening, these can be a useful adjunct to other resources.
  • Practical Opportunities

    There are many topics in medical school that are best learned by doing rather than by learning.
  • Lab sessions - these are useful for learning histology, pathology, microbiology and other lab-based topics
  • Anatomy dissection / virtual dissection sessions - while it is possible to learn anatomy by reading textbooks, it is much more efficient to learn anatomy practically. Such sessions can assist with understanding how organs and body systems are anatomically related.
  • Procedure practice sessions - you will learn many procedures during your time at med school, and the only way to master them is to practice. Initially you may be practicing on dummies, while eventually you will have the opportunity to practice procedural skills on real patients.
  • Testing Methods

    While there are many sources for taking in new information, it is important to also test yourself
  • Questions - this may include questions from textbooks, past questions and question banks.
  • Flashcards - these may be self-created or flashcard banks.

Final Thoughts

The path to becoming a doctor is long and complex. In order to learn everything required you will develop an understanding of your key learning styles, and use those learning styles together to develop a sophisticated understanding of medical concepts.
Good luck!
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Husmann PR, O'Loughlin VD. Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles. Anatomical sciences education. 2019 Jan;12(1):6-19.
Knoll AR, Otani H, Skeel RL, Van Horn KR. Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. British Journal of Psychology. 2017 Aug;108(3):544-63. 
Shershneva MB, Slotnick HB, Mejicano GC. Learning to use learning resources during medical school and residency. Journal of the Medical Library Association. 2005 Apr;93(2):263.
Wynter L, Burgess A, Kalman E, Heron JE, Bleasel J. Medical students: what educational resources are they using?. BMC medical education. 2019 Dec;19(1):1-8.

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