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Study – Social or Solo?

When it comes to cracking open a textbook, memorising facts and doing practice exam questions you may have your old study routine down pat. Some will have studied in groups or with a friend at university, some will have created flashcards and given them to a mate to quiz them. Some stuck cheat sheets up in the shower and others hunkered down in solitude for hours of reading and memorising.

What ever you have found to be the best way to learn your facts In the past is likely to continue to serve you well for part of your study preparation for the RACGP exams. But these exams are not just about memorising facts, there is an art to the level of clinical reasoning and application of your clinical knowledge that is beyond what you have been tested on before. You can’t develop the skill of demonstrating that application of knowledge to a patient by yourself with a coffee and a notebook. I’m here to say – you need a study group, a study buddy, a medical colleague, or just a really dedicated support person willing to discuss cases with you.

For the 12 months before I sat my clinical exam I met weekly with three other registrars. We created a learning plan at our first meeting, divided up the topics, being sure to assign ourselves the topic we were least competent in, and committed to teaching each other. Each week we would prepare our topic then meet and present each other with a summary of the topic and teach it to the group. This meant I only had to do the in-depth research on a quarter of the knowledge that I gained over the year. It was time effective and we ended up with study manual of our summaries that was absolute gold – and I still refer to it today. It was also a way of keeping myself accountable to my study plan by having people rely on me.

However, the greatest benefit of these sessions were not the summaries. As each topic was discussed we would discuss our patients who had presented this way or that, how we investigated them, what management worked or didn’t work. We aired our uncertainties about different ways a patient responded to advice, shared our near misses and little triumphs. Between four doctors we shared four times the patient base and clinical experience.

Now I am working in exam support and question writing, I understand that the question design is testing the application of clinical knowledge and clinical reasoning skills more than it is testing how well someone has memorised Murtagh’s. Without realising, our case discussions (which felt more like a debrief than a formal learning strategy) were the most valuable part of our sessions, and the key to our exam success.

A group of four might night be ideal for everyone. If you don’t perform your best in a group, or don’t have that many contacts at exam time, try finding a single study partner or a medical colleague who has previously sat the exam. Our pandemic times might also call for video or telephone catch ups. Perhaps a 30-minute case discussion with a colleague once a week or fortnight will be all you need.

And sure sometimes our study sessions did turn into the odd venting session, fuelled by wine, seafood dinners and the odd pep talk… social and emotional support to get through the exam process is vital. Long live the study group.