Hints and tips for successful studying at vet school

Posted on November 12, 2018 by Catriona Bell And Jessie Paterson

Top tips for studying at vet schoolEarly November in Semester 1 can be a ‘transition period’ for many new vet students, regardless of whether you have come from school or a previous degree. The thrill and excitement of starting the vet degree may now becoming tempered by the reality of keeping on top of your studies and coping with the volume of content that the degree often requires. There may now be a daunting stack of notes building up on your desk, and the uncertainty of ‘How am I doing compared to the rest of my class?’ may be playing on your mind, particularly if you were used to being ‘top of the class’ in your previous education system.

These can be common anxieties for new vet students, so rest assured that you are not alone, and some relatively simple tweaks to your existing study techniques may be all that you need to get back on track. We have therefore included some ‘top tips’ below based on our experiences of providing ‘Study Skills Support’ to veterinary students‘ over the past nine years.

Be organised (!)

Easy to say, but not always easy to put into practice!

Try to be organised and keep on top of your work as best you can. Breaking things down into week long ‘blocks’ can work well.

A simple but important tip is to ensure that you have all of the relevant notes from the previous week of lectures and practical classes – if you missed one then make sure that you get hold of a copy of the notes, even if you don’t get time to review it that day.

Buy yourself enough ring binders for each of your courses and ideally file notes each evening. If not, put aside half an hour at the weekend for a major filing session and combine it with listening to a favourite playlist or catching up on a boxset.

Break things into manageable chunks

It’s worth considering 'What can I get done in half an hour', for example if you have a gap between lectures. Perhaps you can review the content of half of a lecture and make summary notes for it? You don’t have to sit down and review the whole lecture in one block, and bear in mind that average optimum concentration spans are usually between 20-30 minutes.

Try to spend 5-10 minutes preparing for a class – you could review the learning objectives for the session, or jot down ‘What do I know about this topic already?’. This will help to ‘activate your prior knowledge’ so that you are then able to combine ‘existing knowledge’ with ‘new knowledge’ more efficiently during the lecture.

Try to study little and often, building in repetition into your schedule as much as you can. You may find the ‘one hour, one day, one week, one month’ reviewing rule below helpful.

For example, for a lecture on ‘the anatomy of the hindlimb of the dog’:

  • One hour: Spend 2-3 minutes at the end of the lecture jotting down ‘key take home messages’ as well as ‘any concepts or points that you struggled with during the lecture’.
  • One day: The same evening review the resources from the lecture and make any summary resources (according to your preference – see ‘Active Learning’ below). Look up more information about the ‘concepts or points that you struggled with’.
  • One week: Schedule a ‘weekly round-up’ session each weekend to review the key content from all of your classes that week (just focus on the key content – you won’t have time to review everything in full again).
  • One month: This might sometimes correspond with the timing of an ‘in-course’ or ‘end of module’ assessment, and will therefore link with your ‘revision time’ for this topic.

Distributed Learning - if you are sitting down for a long study session then try to review a variety of different topics, rather than sticking just to one topic (Gerbier and Toppino, 2015).

When, where and how do you work best?

It is worth spending some time considering where you work best, e.g. in your room, in the library, in complete silence, with music in the background etc.

Also consider when you work best – e.g. do you find that you work better at particular times of day, or after you have been to the gym?

Then consider how you work best - is it studying quietly on your own, or through discussing topics with friends? If it’s the latter then you could set up a study group with friends that meets up once a week. It’s easy for study groups to get side tracked with general chatting and drinking coffee, so it’s worth being organised and setting an informal agenda for your session e.g. you could allocate specific topics amongst you and then agree to present a 10 minute summary to your colleagues (teaching someone else is a fantastic way to learn a topic really well).

Adopt Active Learning techniques

Active learning means ‘interacting with the information in a new and meaningful way’, whether that is testing yourself or a friend, creating summary notes, or making a comparison table or mindmap.

In our experience, there are two study techniques which are commonly used by vet students which are ‘passive’ rather than ‘active’, and are therefore generally not found to be effective or efficient study techniques:

  • Rewriting your ‘rough notes’ into ‘neat notes’ – although this technique may reassure you that you've covered that lecture, ask yourself ‘Have I really learned the content?’.
  • For similar reasons, simply highlighting or colour-coding sections of your notes can also be an inefficient study technique.

Alternative ‘active learning’ methods could include making summary notes, diagrams, tables, or key questions to test yourself with. You can also use your learning objectives (if these have been well written) as questions to test yourself with.

Flash cards are also a useful way of testing your knowledge. You can create these and share them with your friends, either using index cards (with a question on one side, and the answers on the other), using Powerpoint slides, or a variety of online tools and apps (googling ‘flash card maker university’ will reveal a range of possible options). You can then use these opportunistically to test either yourself or your friends whenever you find you have a spare moment, e.g. 10 mins during your bus ride home.

Your own personal white board can also be a great learning tool, as it allows you to jot down bullet points, draw diagrams or summary tables, and create mindmaps etc.

Final ‘top tips’ for effective studying at vet school

Spend time on the 'things that you don't know'. There is no point wasting precious study time on the things you know already, so we’d suggest avoiding starting at front of notes and working systematically through them. Instead spend some time identifying topics that you ‘find difficult’ or ‘don’t yet know’ and prioritise your study time for these.

Peer assisted learning. Ask advice from colleagues in the year above you who have 'just been through those courses’ recently. They may be willing to share ideas for how they learned a tricky topic, or how they structured their notes. We have a wonderful team of ‘VetPALS’ who provide peer support for Study Skills at Edinburgh, and you may well have a similar scheme at your own vet school.

More information

Catriona Bell and Jessie Paterson

Written by Catriona Bell and Jessie Paterson

Dr Catriona Bell, Reader at Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, has a role that currently focusses on two key areas: Director of Faculty Development Programme to enhance teaching and, Director of Clinical Skills Programme.

Dr Jessie Paterson, Lecturer in Student Learning, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies joined the University of Edinburgh and worked in the School of Divinity initially as the Computing Officer and latterly as E-learning and IT Advisor. During that time, she developed a strong interest in student support and in particular supporting students with their learning. In 2012, Dr Paterson joined the R(D)SVS initially as a Teaching Fellow and more recently as a Lecturer in Student Learning.