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First-year Medical Student Study Strategy Interviews Provide an Overwhelmed and Over-reliant Attitude


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By Amberly Reynolds, MS
PhD student in Anatomy Education, IU School of Medicine – Bloomington

& Polly R. Husmann, PhD
Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology, IU School of Medicine—Bloomington


First-year medical students in an Anatomy course are presented with a multitude of resources, often including slides and/or notes provided by professors, required textbooks, suggested text and additional study tools mentioned by other students and instructors. Given these resources, students are expected to define their study strategies to find success, but how do they go about that and what are their attitudes toward the expectations? Minimal research into the study skills of medical students has occurred in the last thirty years, yet the expectations are set. Husmann, Barger & Schutte (2015) surveyed the study skills of medical students in anatomy and physiology finding that the four most common study strategies were: reviewing lecture notes, taking practice examinations, completing learning exercises, and making drawings; suggesting that students use varied methods in response to the varied resources. Yet Husmann and colleagues concluded that the increase in the number of study strategies attempted did not allow the student to reach the same depth of understanding as their colleagues who utilized fewer strategies (Husmann, et al., 2015). This qualitative study aims to obtain a more in-depth look at the processes that students’ use to choose their study strategies as well as their attitudes toward the process.


First-year medical students across 7 IUSM campuses were interviewed (n=26) regarding their study strategies during the first year of medical school with a specific emphasis on their Gross Human Anatomy course. The Gross Anatomy course at the time was a stand-alone traditional anatomy course with lecture and cadaver dissection labs.  Semi-structured interviews were completed and recorded over the phone during the summer following their first year of medical school (in this case, 2016) and generally lasted between twenty and sixty minutes.  Interview questions focused on how students studied for both the lecture and lab components of the class and what influenced their study strategy decisions. Interviews were transcribed, checked for quality control, and qualitatively coded. One interview, due to quality of recording, was removed from transcription and analysis. The following data is representative of the thematic analysis completed:


Theme Example quote(s)
Too many resources “It had 10 or more textbooks and many resouces including pretests, BRS, Netter’s, not only questions but other things…”
Lack of direction in using resources “Well, initially, when we went up there, we tried to do everything all at once.  We recognized that it wasn’t effective…”
Over-reliance on professor presentation slides “Probably class notes.  I kind of figured that we would be tested more on the specifics in the class notes.”
“…studying would mostly entail going back over the PowerPoint at least one time that the lecturer just covered…”
Changing study habits and resources “At first, I just did the course objectives, and I took notes, but then I saw that I was missing out on some information.  So, I went back to notebooks after the first exam…”
Overwhelmed student attitude “There is so much volume that you have to choose, you find out later if you choose your outside material correctly.  To try to read and keep up with all of the suggested outside material, I would get behind.”
“It seems like I needed to know the trees and not the forest, if you follow, it’s hard for me to memorized if I don’t understand, and why it exists…”
“I was spending too much time and not getting to everything… It kept changing.  I did a lot of writing when I started but there was too much to get through.”


Conclusions & Future Directions

This study focused on students’ overwhelmed attitude with the number of resources provided but a lack of direction on how to use said resources, and the over-reliance and expectations of professor presentation slides. Additionally, the findings reinforced that with a multitude of resources medical students are likely to change study strategies throughout the course. Pertinent to Anatomy educators is the forethought to instruct students how to choose and use the multitude of resources and to ensure that students do not believe that instructor slideshows contain the only important course content. Medical education faces many curricular changes as we work to provide our future physicians with the proper content but also important is our ability to teach them the necessary skills of how best to use the vast content resources.

First-year medical students need guidance in transitioning into medical school especially in understanding how to use resources, how to limit resources and how best to individually incorporate study skills for their success. Implications may include increased student effectiveness in studying.  Future analysis of this interview data may be assessed for additional themes.  IUSM has recently transitioned to an integrated curriculum and future studies will investigate students that matriculated through this new curriculum to allow for better understanding of the influence of a changed curriculum on student study skills and attitudes.


  1. Husmann, P.R., Barger, J.B., & Schutte, A.F. (2015). Study skills in anatomy and physiology: Is there a difference? Anatomical Sciences Education, 9(1), 18-27. doi: 10.1002/ase.1522


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  • IRB Protocol #1507250684
  • Thank you to all the medical students who participated in this study. To Jackie Cullison, Alex Chong, Kain Myer and Kelsey Butcher, thank you for all the hours of transcription work.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Polly Husmann

Polly Husmann is an Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine – Bloomington campus where she teaches anatomy to medical, graduate, and undergraduate students. She received her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Notre Dame in 2005, her M.S. in Anatomy Education from Indiana University in 2009, and her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Indiana University in 2011. Her education research includes both quantitative and qualitative methods mainly focused on factors outside the classroom that affect students’ academic performance. These research interests include study habits, course logistics, student wellness, and metacognition. She is a member of the American Association of Anatomists, where she has served on the Advisory Council for Young Anatomists and the Professional Development Committee, and she is also a member of the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society.