How I used Google Sheets to study in Medical School Year 2

I wanted to take the time now that there’s only a week of year 2 remaining, to reflect on how I drastically changed my studying technique this year, in the hopes that I can improve in the future and maybe even help others to study better, too.

So Google Sheets. Where did I get the idea to use that?

I got a lot of inspiration from this video by Ali Abdaal, a popular (former) medical student YouTuber (now a Doctor).

Ali Abdaal Google Sheets method

Ali’s method

In a nutshell, he wrote questions in Column A (on the left), and the answers in Column B (to the right). He’d then set Column B to font colour white, so at a glance, the whole exercise wasn’t ruined by seeing the answer right there, when reading the question.

The way in which you use it to study is this: read the question, recall the answer, then select the box (cell) with the answer in it, to the right (using arrow keys or mouse). Then the answer (which is written in white) can be viewed in the formula bar, at the top of the screen. Now you can compare what you remembered, to what the answer actually was.

In response to how well you knew the answer, you colour-in the question box (cell), using a traffic-light system. So green=knew it, yellow=kind of knew it and red=I was really wrong.

The method is essentially based on his golden rules of studying: active recall (making yourself remember something instead of just reading it), and spaced repetition (covering everything over a long period of time).

Spaced repetition is achieved by covering the ‘red’ questions more than the green ones. So the stuff you knew least well is studied more often, until it becomes ‘green’.

I believe he also wrote down the dates when he covered each topic, so furthered his spaced repetition by studying the topics that hadn’t been revised for a long time.


My method: Basics

So that was my inspiration. Now let’s look how I built on that, over the course of a year.

An example from my own notes

As you can see in the image above, my method does in fact look very similar to Ali’s, but it works slightly differently and saves time in the process.

The basic principals are the same: questions in Column A, answers (in white) in column C. When the answer is selected, it can be viewed in the formula bar above.

So what’s the deal with Column B? In that one, I used some formula magic (trial & error) to correspond “,” to red, “.” to yellow and “/” to green. This saves me much time, as it seemed that after doing a question, Ali had to manually change the colour of the question cell, whereas all I have to do is use the arrow keys and one of 3 nearby keys to alter the traffic-light. Note: Column B text is also white.


My method: Organisation

So now I’ve shown how the flashcards themselves work, I’ll describe how I linked all of the work from year 2 into a seamless, easy-to-use system.

My Google Sheets document, linked in the taskbar

First, all I do to open the ‘Year 2 Medicine’ document, containing flashcards for all content this year, is click on the icon in my taskbar.

Homepage

Then, I’m greeted with my homepage. Here you can see links to all of the units in year 2 medicine, along with other content, such as anatomy. Unfortunately, the Sheets’ link functionality isn’t perfect; when hovering over a cell with a link to another page, you can’t just click anywhere in the cell, but must click on some text which appears over it.

Using links to other pages in Sheets

Let’s go ahead and click on ‘Unit 12’, to see an overview of all of the lectures from that time.

Unit 12 lectures

Here, I can see all of the lectures in the unit, along with having the ability to note down when I last studied each one, to ensure that I’m constantly being exposed to different content, and not repeating the same thing over and over. (spaced repetition in action!)

Clicking on a given lecture title will take me directly to the start of that lecture’s questions (within the given unit’s sheet). The black arrow in the top left returns me to the homepage.

Example of linking back to overview page

Finally, at the start of each set of lecture questions, I created a link back to the overview page. That way when I finish a lecture and then reach the beginning of the next one, I can return to the overview page, mark the date of completion, and then begin with the next lecture I want to study.


Final thoughts

Unfortunately, I didn’t have too much of a chance to see the effect of this method on my exam results.

I performed much better in the first exam of the year, than I had previously. I think this is the best evidence I have, since I worked just as hard as I did when studying last year. For the record, in year 1 I merely studied by re-reading my notes again and again. There was no active recall involved. Shameful, I know.

In the second exam in the year, I was half a mark below the pass (for that exam, overall for the year I’m still ok), but I attribute that to the fact that I know I could have worked much harder, plus that particular exam was horrible for everyone.

I was supposed to have an exam in March and June, but they were cancelled due to COVID. I will, however, have some online “exams” in June, but they don’t count for anything, and won’t be nearly as comprehensive as usual, due to the circumstances.

But overall I think that this method is easy to use, effective and actually kind of fun. By removing the content from awkwardly-worded lecture slides and long rambling video lectures, everything is condensed in the same, reliable format. By bundling everything together, I removed the barrier to studying found in having to hunt down and open lots of documents for 1 lecture.

It’s not perfect, and it sometimes must be used in conjunction with other resources (anatomy diagrams, my OSCE notes on Notion, etc…), but I’d take it over any other method, any day.

Reece 🙂

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