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Merck Manuals Survey: 8 in 10 Medical Students Say COVID-19 and Remote Learning Have Impacted Their Study Habits

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on medical students. As universities have shifted to virtual learning models and online classes, students have had to shift their learning and study habits. To better understand these challenges, the Merck Manuals surveyed 169 medical and pre-med students at the virtual American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Annual Convention in April.

When asked about the transition to remote learning, 82%  of students said they’ve had to change their study habits. Four in 10 students (43%) said they have a harder time following lessons and grasping information in a remote learning environment, and 43% said they study alone more than before. Another 43% said it’s different, though not easier or harder, to follow lessons in a remote learning environment. A smaller percentage (20%) said their study habits have not changed much, and just 15% said it’s actually easier to focus in a remote learning environment. It’s clear students are adjusting the tools and techniques they use to communicate and master material in this new reality.

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New Ways of Connecting with Professors and Classmates

As students navigate new learning environments, virtual communication tools have become critical for accessing information and knowledge from professors and staying connected with classmates. The survey asked students to rank their preferred communication methods:

  • 55% said videoconferencing (FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom, WebEx, Skype, etc.)
  • 40% said electronic tools (texts, email, instant messaging)
  • 5% said verbal correspondence (phone calls)

This ability to connect is proving to be an important factor for students figuring out virtual learning. In addition to the 43%  who said they study alone more than ever, 30% say they study alone but check in with classmates and professors. Just 8% of medical students said they regularly study with classmates in virtual groups or using online communications technologies.

Knowing that virtual learning can pose unique challenges, students were asked to name different ways they manage to study if they don’t have internet access or spotty service. Most (70%) download and save documents, 61% relied on textbooks, more than half (56%) review personal notes or notecards while some (20%) use offline apps, and 17% say they can’t study without internet access.

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Effective Study Hacks in a Remote Learning World

As more students study alone, the survey also asked students to list their most effective study hacks to remember key information and concepts. The most popular study hacks and memory techniques include:

  • Mnemonic devices (75%)
  • Draw visual aids (67%)
  • Color code notes or sections (51%)
  • Make up acronyms (50%)
  • Create a memory palace (25%)
  • Come up with a catchy song (9%)

All students said they still rely on notetaking as a study strategy, and a vast majority said they use videos (98%), practice tests (94%) and prioritizing more challenging topics (63%) as study tools.

“Medical school is already a defining challenge in the lives of future physicians, and today’s students are forced to overcome a whole new set of challenges related to COVID-19 and the new realities of online learning,” said Robert S. Porter, M.D., Merck Manuals Editor-in-Chief. “It’s fitting that at the first-ever virtual AMSA conference, our survey revealed how students are navigating virtual learning. At the Manuals, we believe this evolving educational environment makes access to reliable medical information more important than ever. We’re expanding our resources to include multimedia tools, videos, editorials, articles and podcasts.”

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