Medical School

How to adapt your learning style for University

The jump from secondary/ high-school to university is not an easy transition for anyone. Not only are many people living away from home for the first time, but you are expected to very quickly adapt to new ways of being taught. In order to make the most of your time at university you will likely have to change your learning style to suit these new learning environments.

Come August I’ll be entering into my sixth year at university. Barring the 2014/15 academic year, which was my gap year, I have had to sit formal summative exams every year since I was 11. That’s 14 years of having to revise, study and sit exams every year.

Learning to learn.

How I have revised and prepared for these exams has had to change over this time. I’m sure aspiring medical students will have already experienced the change in learning when moving from GCSE to A-Level.

This is a large jump for all students, when learning moves from very spoon-fed, activity-driven and classroom based GCSE lessons to A levels. A Level classes were delivered at my college by a teacher standing at the front of the room speaking at a class of 20-30 students. This was often followed by experiments (for sciences) and/or set questions we had to answer. Sound familiar?

The move from A Level to university represents an even larger jump in independent learning. Gone are the set curricula, the practice questions consolidating every lessons’ learning and the hand-holding of secondary school. At university, learning is delivered in lectures, tutorials, seminars and workshops.

Each of these teaching styles will require you to adapt your learning style to match.

So how do I recommend learning at University?

As I enter into my sixth year at university I have been reflecting on how efficient my learning has been in each of the previous years. When did I get particularly good grades? When did I feel especially confident in the material? What was I doing differently those years? I’ve come up with a few key ideas about my learning style at university.


My first point may well be controversial for current medical students: I believe you need to turn up to lectures where possible.

King’s College London, like most UK medical schools, records almost all of the lectures delivered to medical students, particularly preclinical sciences. These recorded lectures are great in some ways: they allow you to pause, rewind and change the speed of the recording so that you can take very detailed notes and revisit content whenever you want. The recordings also mean that you can choose when and where you want to learn. Recorded lectures are a fantastic revision resource. However, I still think that it is important to turn up to lectures when you can.


Firstly, accountability. When you are in a lectures hall with hundreds of other students and a lecturer looking directly at you, you are much less likely to be spending your time playing candy-crush or watching YouTube.

Secondly, getting in the right headspace. Travelling into university, for me, always helped to get me in the mood for a day of studying.

Thirdly, socialising. Medical school can be really hectic, especially around exams or deadlines. You can easily fall into a situation where the only place you are seeing your peers is on campus at formal teaching and to loose this opportunity can mean that you don’t interact with colleagues for days or weeks at a time.

lastly, you need to learn to be able to hear and retain information first time for when you are on the wards. Once you are interacting with patients you can’t pause, rewind or listen back at half speed. Your histories need to be thorough, detailed and efficient. To do this you may decide to take notes while speaking to a patient, or after you have spoken to them. Either way, attending lectures and learning to make notes on the fly and absorb information you are hearing is an important skill.

Use recordings to revise, not to be introduced to content first time.

Keeping track of your learning.

The other major change from A Level is that it will now be up to you to keep track of the curriculum. What you have and haven’t been taught, and what you need to know for finals. On top of this, you will find it is a fairly common occurrence that you will have to find and fill the gaps in your teaching yourself. For example, at King’s there is no set curriculum for each academic year. Instead, we are provided with a list of learning objectives – what we should be able to do by the end of the year. If you miss an in-person teaching event, or a teaching session doesn’t happen (actually a fairly common occurrence with clinical staff prioritising patients over teaching) it will be up to you to fins a new way to learn this content.

In order to do this, you will have to get used to independent learning. A significant part of any university course will revolve around independent learning skills. You may be provided with resources by your institution or you may have to find or even create your our resources. The largest barrier I found to independent learning was finding the will power and self control to actually spend my ‘free-time’ actually working! I developed some key steps to sitting down and productively studying.

Self-directed learning in three easy steps.

  1. Scheduling time to study. You need to truly set aside time dedicated to studying if you are going to get any real studying done. Preferably this is done ahead of time, so that you can avoid distractions and excuses.
  2. Creating a distraction free study environment. To focus on your work you may need to physically separate yourself from distractions like phone, games, books and people. I have found that I work best either in a coffee shop or in one of the university libraries. This means that I’m away from all the distractions of home. Plus, there is the added societal pressure to at least look like I’m being productive!
  3. Pacing yourself. It’s not realistic to think that you are going to be able to focus for hours at a time without breaks. Find things you can do to break up your studying time. I find exercise, cooking or chores to be the best things to do. Things with a set endpoint are best, they end and then you have to get back to your studying.

Working at university.

One major reason that many students don’t attend lectures is that they choose to or need to spend that time working to earn money. This, I think, is an entirely legitimate reason not to attend lectures. Medical school is long and expensive, and should be accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Universities need to accept that some students aren’t able to get as much support from their families as others.

I have worked the entire way through university, as well as taking the maximum student grants, bursaries and loans. But I have, on the whole, managed to do this without missing lectures. I found that I could attend all the scheduled teaching alongside working. I have done this by working weekends, nights and very intensively through the holidays.

The best way to avoid missing uni is to work the fewest hours while earning the maximum amount. I have settled on online tutoring as the most efficient income source for myself. Through online tutoring agencies and platforms (most successfully and profitably SuperProf) I’ve built a large client list and am now regularly tutoring for 10-20 hours per week. If you do wish to sign up for superprof, feel free to drop me a message through the contact form or by replying to any of my newsletters and I can talk you through setting up a great advert on the platform.

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Connor is a medical student at King’s College London. For the 19/20 academic year he is undertaking an intercalated iBSc in Imaging Sciences, also at King’s.

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