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If you’re starting nursing school, but want to get some insider information on the best ways to go about studying, look no further. In this post, we cover how to study for nursing school with some practical, yet unexpected, tips from someone who has been there.
I liken learning how to rapidly and successfully retain complex information to getting the recipe for a very difficult recipe for the first time. So, let’s dig in!
Table of Contents
Note what concepts don’t make sense
For me, things like a gas exchange, and depolarization/re-polarization actually mean a whole lot without a deeper explanation. In class, I would certainly nod along as if it made sense, but in reality it did not. I had to actively notice these dots were not connecting, and make a conscious effort to connect them.
Don’t judge yourself for not getting it right away, just notice. Make a note on your phone or in a physical notebook of this list of topics to inform your study efforts later on.
This is like reading a recipe and noticing what things are unfamiliar to you so you can proactively fill in those gaps before actually making the meal.
- How do I “mince” something? What is a shallot?
- Braise? What is BRAISING?
- It only calls for like a teaspoon of baking soda and I don’t have any, I don’t even get why I’d need that or why it’s so important.
This can help your study time feel less frustrating.
Organize your study life
Organize your study materials and spaces like you’d organize your pantry and meal planning.
Get out your calendar and write all of your deadlines on there – with the topic of the exam. Then, plan when you will study as well.
This is like meal planning, ensuring you have the items you need to make the meal, and that it is easy to quickly grab what you need.
Make sure your study sessions are in reasonable chunks of time to optimize comprehension. Likely 2-hour sessions over 3 days are better than one 6-hr session. (But do what works best for you and your brain!)
Prep your dish like a pro
Now that we’ve planned for the meal – we need to make it. Our focal point for this study session will be whatever topic is coming up next, and one we’ve had the lectures on that we need for the context.
Consider looking back at your list in your phone of things that didn’t make sense.
Gather and decide what you’re going to use (your resources, or “ingredients”).
Optimize your environment
This is where you’re going to actually eat your meal. You don’t want to eat off of a cold, dark basement floor. You’d rather eat at a nice table, with real silverware, in comfortable clothes, without a bunch of noise in the background.
Consider what environmental factors make you feel calm, safe, grounded, and focused. Create that environment around you. (You likely will really only need to establish this once and maybe make some tweaks, and then just maintain.)
Figure out your preferences. Things that make you look forward to being in that space could include:
- An organized and minimalistic desk space
- A color-coordinated desk space
- Hiding cables with some superior cable management skills
- A snazzy candle or diffuser blend
- Focus-oriented background music
- Natural light
- A yummy drink, snack, or fave gum
- Multiple widget options
- A vast array of highlighter options
None of this has to be expensive or fancy. A little effort can really help you get your head into the game easier with a space that you customize to your preferences.
Now that your dish is prepped, you’re ready to enjoy!
Outsmart your brain
A lot of us don’t typically feel like studying. But, sometimes we’ve got to hype ourselves up to do those things we don’t necessarily feel like doing, but know are good for us. It’s like our wise mind and emotional minds are fighting it out. For example, you might have a date tonight that you’re super nervous about and just want to bail at the last minute but know you should keep it and push through the nerves. Well, surprise, our brains do this rude trick to us on the regular!
So, it might require some active engagement on your part to get in the right headspace to focus. Be your own hype man and psych yourself up: “OK, let’s go. We can do this. Let’s get this study session in.”
We don’t want our autopilot feelings to run our life. Doing new challenging things doesn’t signal safety to your brain, which desires predictability and routine – even if it’s not in our holistic best interest. So, it might push against you to do these things that are actually good for you (searching all the excuses to not study).
Next, when you settle into the session, take a break after 20 min or so when you start to observe your attention waning. So, when you notice you keep checking your texts or refreshing TikTok, pause. Take a little break and get ready to get back into the game.
Its kind of like the deep-focused study is like your set of 15 reps at the gym. Your muscles start to fatigue and can’t keep going, but that doesn’t mean the workout is over. You rest for a few minutes and then hop into your second set.
The important thing is to not entirely disconnect from studying when you take a break. That would be like running to Chipotle in between sets. You’re likely not going to want to do that next set, and it’s going to be harder to maintain effort with such a big change in the milieu.
Once you get into a grove with this process of getting your study routine down, this process has utility – it becomes a ritual to transition your brain from whatever you were doing before to focused studying. This helps you get focused faster as you transition from activity to activity (for example, spending time with kids or significant others to focus on studying).
Enjoy bite-sized learning throughout the day
These are your snacks! We need meals AND snacks to be successful.
In todays day and age, it’s time to get something on your phone for micro-learning to solidify topics as you go about your day. It’s not 1999 when if you wanted to study or do review questions, you’d have to pull out your 5-subject notebook and 1,000+ page textbooks.
Leverage technology to make your life easier. There are various apps out there that have it where it automatically sends it to your phone (via SMS texts or notifications to do study questions) so you don’t have to think about it. Picmonic and Nursing.com, for example. (And if you use Picmonic, make sure you use code FRESHRN when you sign-up for 20% off!)
It’s essentially automating studying. I love automation! I use it for my banking (auto-pay for bills) and my business. It makes life exponentially easier.
Set your physical body up for success
We don’t want it to try to compensate for those deficits (sleep, nutrition, movement) while using a ton of brain power to learn difficult concepts at a rapid pace.
Much like with your patient, we want their body to focus on healing from their stroke, heart attack, or whatever … not trying to deal w/ issues from things like abnormal electrolytes or inadequate O2. We provide that supplemental potassium, oxygen, etc. as needed so their body can focus on healing from the main issue.
Practically speaking, don’t underestimate the power of adequate sleep. Consider meditating for 3-10 min prior to a deep study session. And maybe don’t eat food that distracts you from studying. So, don’t eat something that will hurt your stomach but tastes delicious before studying, don’t drink booze which will make you sleepy and much less motivated, and don’t over-caffeinate yourself so you can’t maintain focus.
- Don’t over-highlight. When everything is highlighted, nothing is.
- Color coding is very helpful to quickly identify the level of importance of information. Here’s an example of how you could choose to color your notes:
- Yellow = FYI
- Pink = Crazy important
- Green = confusing, circle back
- Organize your digital and physical files so you don’t waste time searching for things. It adds up!
- Focus on truly knowing concepts, not memorizing words.
- Give yourself a semester or two to get acclimated to nursing school expectations, and don’t beat yourself if you’re not getting peak exam scores immediately. It takes time to get used to it.
- Observe what learning styles really move the needle and write it down! For me, it was watching a video or animation, then taking notes during the “ah-ha moments”. I had to physically write it down and make it look nice, something about that solidified it in my brain. Maybe for you, it’s listening to lectures like a podcast and taking very visually appealing notes.
- Believe the best about yourself. Trying to do something new and hard while your brain is telling you that you can’t do it. Remind yourself “I can do hard things,” and give yourself permission to be a beginner.
- Observe what doesn’t make sense
- Organize your study life
- Prep like a pro
- Outsmart your brain
- Preschedule micro-learning moments
Helpful nursing school resources
- Picmonic – a great nursing school educational supplement (If you decide to buy a plan, use the promo code FRESHRN to get 20% off)
- 10 Mistakes Most Nursing Students Make (And How to Avoid Them) – a free 26-page ebook
- Nursing.com – another great option for an educational supplement for nursing school
- How to Pass Nursing School Exams – a FreshRN blog post
- Tips for Studying in Nursing School – a FreshRN blog post
- How to Survive Nursing School [Masterpost] – a FreshRN blog post
Getting ready for nursing school clinicals, but feeling unprepared?
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