Med Student Cliff Notes: How to Quickly Memorize Medical Terminology

posted by Chris Valentine

Memorize Medical Terminology

It can be hard to pick out the single worst thing about going through medical school. Is it the too many nights of no sleep, the six figures of student debt, the insane workload, or the pressure of knowing that someday people’s lives will be in your hands? Or could it be the sheer amount of medical terminology you’re faced with memorizing?

Memorizing medical terminology can be a daunting task, especially given the amount you’re expected to know. But as any good med student knows, you want to work smarter, not harder, and there are ways to do that with memorization. Read on to learn about some of the best ways to memorize medical terminology.

Use Visual Aids

One of the best ways to make learning medical terminology easier on yourself is to use visual aids. Remember, everything you’re studying is a real thing that happens in the human body. When you’re sitting in a med school test, you have all the answers to the questions stored in your very body.

Associating the terms you’re learning with an actual visual image of what you’re talking about will help give them meaning. If possible, tie them to a physical point on your body. The names will go from being meaningless combinations of letters to being integral parts of your body.

Make It a Game

It’s always easier to learn when you’re enjoying yourself, and let’s face it: studying medical terminology is boring. So instead, why not make a game out of it?

One way to make studying more fun is to set up an incentive program for yourself. When you hit a certain checkpoint in your studying, you can have a treat of some sort, whether that be watching an episode of your favorite show or taking a walk around the block.

If you want a more literal game experience, there are tons of games and apps on smartphones that can help you study for your med school exams. Search your app store for games like Med Term Scrabble and Medical Terminology Quiz.

Go Back to the Root

Another great way to remember long, complex medical terms is to break down the meaning behind the words. As much as it might look like it, these terms weren’t generated by the discovering scientist smashing their head into a keyboard. Their roots come from Latin and Greek, and learning the meanings of those roots can help you remember the meaning of the word.

If you have an opportunity, taking a medical Latin or Greek class can be a huge help throughout the rest of med school. But if not, take the time when you’re studying to look for frequently repeated root words and learn their meanings. Knowing that “card” is a root meaning heart can help you remember that pericarditis is swelling around the heart.

Create Acronyms

One of the worst things about learning medical terminology is trying to remember what causes each of the conditions you’re learning about. There can be half a dozen causes assigned to each term, and memorizing them all can seem impossible. This is where acronyms come in handy.

Let’s take erythema nodosum as an example; this condition involves an inflammation of fat under the skin. It can be caused by drugs, infection, pregnancy, OCP, ulcerative colitis, and tuberculosis. If you arrange these terms, they form the acronym “DIP OUT,” which is much easier to remember.

Use the Right Guides

Using the right tool for the right job is important, and medical terminology study guides are no exception. Medical dictionaries can seem like the most direct way to learn everything you need to, but they’re dense and uninviting. When’s the last time you looked at a dictionary and felt compelled to keep turning pages?

Find a study guide that works well for you, and use that. You want something that engages your learning style, breaks down the information into manageable bits, and provides a structure for learning the terminology you need to. Medical Terminology for Dummies, Medical Terminology: A Living Language, and Quick Medical Terminology: A Self-Teaching Guide are all useful resources.

Check Out Free Online Courses

We know, you already have plenty of classwork to contend with. But during med school, you’re only getting information from one source, probably in one format. Supplementing that learning with online classes can be helpful in cementing medical terms in your mind.

We also know that as a med student, you have precisely zero expendable income. Luckily, many of these classes are available online for free. Look into courses offered by the National Library of Medicine and SweetHaven Publishing Services, or the Ultimate Medical Academy for solid classes.

Make Flashcards

Flashcards are a tried-and-true method of memorizing just about any list of terms you’re faced with. The learning mechanism here works on a couple of levels; if you make your own flashcards, you’ll get the benefit of writing out the terms, which can help you learn them. Then reviewing them, especially with friends, engages your visual and auditory learning mechanisms.

When you’re studying with your flashcards, make three piles. The first should be terms you’re solid on, the second should be terms you’re not as sure on, and the third should be terms you don’t know at all. Go back through the second and third piles until you can answer everything with confidence, and then start over on the whole stack.

Record Yourself

Everyone has a different learning style, and for some people, listening to material works better than reading it. Even if you are a visual learner, interacting with the material in different manners can help it sink in more. A great way to get this information in different formats is to record yourself reading terms and their definitions out loud. 

Hearing yourself read medical terminology out loud will do a couple of things. First of all, it will help you break down the terms you’re working with, a study technique we’ll talk more about in a moment. But it will also involve a different part of your brain in the learning, which is always helpful in increasing retention.

Take the Terms Apart

When you’re trying to learn medical terms, one of the least helpful things you can do is get overwhelmed by the behemoth words you’re looking at. These words are long, but they are composed of disparate parts. Before you look at the word as an unapproachable mass, start breaking the word down.

Most medical terms are made of at least one prefix, a root word, and a suffix. Break the word down into those parts, and sound them out. Being familiar with each part of the word will make it seem more approachable and help you remember it when it comes test time.

Create Fun Pneumonic Devices

Studying medicine is a serious pursuit, but the way you do it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes having a private inside joke can be one of the best ways to learn something. Try to find silly or funny ways to make connections with the material you’re learning.

Sound the term you’re studying out, and think about what the sound of the word reminds you of. Try to connect that meaning to something to do with the condition or body part in question. The more it makes you giggle, the better you’ll be able to remember it.

Get Some Sleep

One of the most important keys to memorizing medical terminology is also counterintuitive. At some point, you’ll be better served by putting down the textbooks for the night and getting some sleep.

There are lots of studies that show that a lack of sleep can have a profoundly negative impact on the brain. Not least of these negative effects are high blood pressure and narrow blood pressure. This means less blood flow to the brain, which means less memory ability. 

There’s No Substitute for Practice

While it is vital that you get as much regular sleep as you can, there’s also no substitute for practicing with your terms. The more you review them, the more naturally they will come for you. So how do you get enough sleep and also go over your terms enough to get them solid in your brain: don’t cram.

Give yourself plenty of time to study the terms you need to, and schedule time to review your terms every day. If possible, review any new terms within twenty-four hours of receiving them. With enough time, dedication, and creative study practices, you’ll have the information you need down pat.

Get Help Memorizing Medical Terminology

Memorizing a giant list of medical terminology can seem daunting at first. But take a deep breath, break it down into manageable bits. Experiment and figure out which of the techniques we mentioned here will work best for you, and you’ll be memorizing medical terminology in no time flat.

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