Back to school woes - late 30s edition
September 28, 2021 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm 38 years old and contemplating a career change into medicine, from a completely unrelated non-STEM field. I've just started with the prerequisite biology and chemistry courses and am having a tough time. I need some tips on how to adjust and acclimate.

My college degree is in the humanities, so I really don't have any experience studying hard sciences, except for barely-remembered courses in high school. It's not the content I'm finding difficult (though I'm sure I'll get to that point too), it's more the act of studying and giving focused attention to fairly dense material. So I guess I'm looking for guidance on how to get acclimated to studying for long periods of time (I find my mind wandering and attention waning after 15-20 minutes of focused reading + note-taking), as well as any general study tips for science courses. Thank you!
posted by averageamateur to Education (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm younger than you but started pre-reqs for medicine at 27. One, I got diagnosed with ADHD at 28 and getting help around that improved things greatly. Also, I think studying for long period will become more natural for you with time. Don't forget to give yourself breaks after 20-25 minutes or whatever you can tolerate. Your tolerance will build up with time but for sure you need to acclimate as it does, so breaks will be essential. Nowadays I can study for sometimes 2-3 hours nonstop and take 15 minute breaks, although sometimes I can barely sit down for 10 without needing a 10 minute break. I try to go with the flow... And I think you'll adjust too.
Look at r/premed for specific advice on studying resources (anki, that sort of thing). There are other subreddits for different fields as well with more tailored advice.
Doing small exercises between studying (during breaks) can help with memory/retention too.
And interval training for retaining stuff.
Study to learn but also sometimes study for the tests-- it's a lot of info and we simply aren't computers, so if you're feeling pinched for time analyze how your professor writes exams (or how the software does, whatever) and aim to learn it to do well on exams. Do not over/re-review material you already know- take down notes and make study guides on whatever you feel weakest on and focus on that whilst prepping for exams. Scratch stuff off the list as you become more confident w that material and write reconsider making a new list until it's all down pat.
Feel free to memail me for more if you'd like... Typing on phone atm, not the easiest.
Good luck! You're gonna do great.
posted by erattacorrige at 4:19 PM on September 28, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: If you've not done it already, get yourself on the free MOOC, Learning How To Learn. Most popular MOOC in the world, based on research about how we learn best. Full of useful stuff (like the fact that in order to learn, we can't be perpetually in focused mode, we have to switch between focused and diffuse attention).

It's also charming - presented by a college professor and expert on the science of learning, but filmed in her basement by her husband, with home-made greenscreen. And yet has had nearly 3 million students enrolled on it over the time it's been up. Also one of my most-given answers on AskMe and I still want Barb to be my friend!
posted by penguin pie at 4:21 PM on September 28, 2021 [24 favorites]


Hi! I study a STEM subject at postgrad level, and also came into my bachelors at an older age.

I can highly recommend the book 'A mind for numbers'. It talks a lot about active recall vs passive study techniques, which was helpful when trying to figure out the best way to make use of my study time. It's a very easy book to read, so shouldn't take up much of your time. Not everything in there resonated with me i.e. doing the most difficult stuff at the start of the day (I'm a night person, through and through) but overall I found it very helpful.
posted by BeeJiddy at 6:14 PM on September 28, 2021 [8 favorites]


Different context, but I struggle here too. Things like pomodoro, drawing bubbles and coloring them in for each hour of focus, study with me videos, focusmate, bribes, celebrating small wins..... All really important for my ability to learn as an adult.
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:44 PM on September 28, 2021 [3 favorites]


I recommend reading (or perhaps skimming if you don't have much time right now!) Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. It has a good balance of theory, practice, and examples. It will really help you identify strategies that should be effective (even if they don't feel like they're immediately effective) and those that are not effective (even if they feel like they're immediately effective).
posted by ElKevbo at 7:45 PM on September 28, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Check out Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Based on that book and a few others I read around the same time, I started developing rituals at the beginning, end, and before/after any breaks I took when I was doing classes for my PhD and writing / doing research for my dissertation (doing part-time in my late 30s). I had a checklist I went through, an example one for starting a session:

- Review list of things I need to study (a standard list of things I needed to do my work, which included things like: scrap paper, notebook, water, coffee, stop time, spouse notified, required books)
- 5 minute meditation
- Review Dates
- Review To Do List
- ID Top 3 Priority items
- Start work on item #1

And ending a session:
- Write-up research in research journal
- ID priorities for next session
- Review Calendar
- Send remaining Emails
- 5 minute meditation

My work sessions were usually 2 - 4 hours in length. I would take breaks periodically (I had a checklist for those as well, including it not being more than 15 minutes, and leaving a note to myself about how to pick up again after the break was done) during that time.

YMMV and your rituals might look very different based on your learning style, working style, class needs, etc., but once I did them a 10-15 times, it made it very easy to get started any time I set aside a block of time for class, research, or writing and I did most of the steps automatically.
posted by chiefthe at 7:46 PM on September 28, 2021 [16 favorites]


Best answer: I studied bio in college, but I didn't really learn to study until I got to med school. The sheer volume of information I had to learn forced me to develop a repetition-based study plan that worked really well for me. This is what I did:

- Briefly review the slides/content of each lecture the night before.
- Pay good attention to the lecture itself. Some people feel strongly about taking notes or not taking notes during lecture. I say, do what works for you. I find that taking notes by hand aids my recall.
- As soon as possible after the lecture, while the material is fresh in your mind (max 24 hrs from the lecture), study the lecture and do practice problems.
- Each weekend, review the past week's material.

You've now gotten FOUR reviews of the material.

Before the mid-term and the final, review all the lectures again. These reviews should come somewhat easy.

During tests, I could visualize in my mind where the information was in my textbooks/notebooks, and this helped me answer questions.

Other things I found helpful:
- Stop doodling. In med school, I stopped doodling on my notes. I firmly believe that this was a big factor in improving my concentration.
- I used a lot of mnemonics. The dirtier, the better!
- Instead of struggling through difficult material for hours, I went to office hours or emailed my professors when I had questions that I could not solve on my own. Helped me a lot.
- I found it helpful to study at the school library, away from my apartment/all my stuff. I felt inspired to focus when I saw all the other students studying hard.
- Taking regular study breaks. Make a little event of it. Walk a lap around the library, or get a coffee - just something to look forward to after a block of study time.
- Some days, I came home and was just dead tired. I gave myself permission to veg out and relax those days.
- I wrote out complex pathways in my own words, using flowcharts or other visual aids. Not everyone finds things like this useful, but I did.

Lastly, as an adult student, you will have a lot more life responsibilities than your peers, and I wonder if this is contributing to your difficulty with concentration. To manage your life stuff along with your heavy course load, keep to-do lists of EVERYTHING, the moment things pop into your head. Even the smallest or most obvious things, like "take out the bathroom trash" or "fill the ice cube trays" or "RSVP to Jamie's wedding" or "iron blue shirt". This way, you can be really efficient in your precious free time, instead of piddling about after work/school trying to remember all the little things you have to do. You will free up brain space so that you're not stressing during class instead of paying attention. I find this to be a real issue now in my mid-30s, and I have found comprehensive to-do lists to help a great deal.

If you have a partner or household members with whom you share tasks, get a shared calendar app or to-do list app of some sort.
posted by aquamvidam at 8:28 PM on September 28, 2021 [8 favorites]


I recommend ‘Teach Yourself to Learn’ by McGuire and McGuire.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:12 PM on September 28, 2021


Many years ago, I found myself on a Buddhist retreat and in one of the Dharma-sharing sessions a young fellow asked "if I'm meditating alone, who will ring the bell to indicate the end of the session?". It may be hard to imagine a serene person in saffron robes going ballistic but the gist of the Dharma leader's measured response was that the chap should asap get a Sangha; that meditation was dangerous / futile / hard to do alone. Ditto study. If you can find a study-buddy it will be much easier. Or even a trusted friend who'll let you share what you've learned about the pancreas in exchange for cookies. You really don't understand stuff until you can explain it.

John McGahern the writer has a quote something something "Write what you read, to see what you think". As aquamvidam says, written notes can become a recallable map of the information. And I don't think anybody has mentioned mindmaps [done by hand on paper is better] or the memory palace [Moonwalking with Einstein] yet.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:01 AM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]


Btw, the book A mind for numbers, recommended by BeeJiddy, is written by Barbara Oakley, who is the presenter of Learning How to Learn, the MOOC I suggested. So they'd probably complement each other/cover similar ground.
posted by penguin pie at 4:52 AM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: I went back to med school at 37 and now, at 44, I'm a resident. As a side note, the study skills you will need for prereqs, a lot of problem-solving, are totally different than the skills you'll need for med school itself, which requires a whole lot more rote memorization, and less critical thinking, than you ever imagined.

One trouble spot for me was the internet. I finally just learned not to get lost on the internet while working--brute force--because looking up stuff on the internet is 100% essential for med school studying. You can't turn it off. For prereqs you probably can--just use your textbook. At other times in my life I've used LeechBlock, which blocks distracting websites of your choice. At this point I don't really need it.

For both prereqs and med school I recommend designating an "office," maybe a particular desk at the library or the peer tutoring office, to keep your home relatively free of school and to signal to yourself that it's time to do work.

Lots of people in medicine are on stimulants. YMMV.

Good luck!
posted by 8603 at 11:59 AM on September 29, 2021 [5 favorites]


I'm 44 and went back to school last year to get my bachelor degree (after having dropped out at age 19). I just wanted to say, first, that I initially found the transition jarring and difficult, despite being enthusiastic about finally getting the degree in a field I've been passionate about for ages (public health, I have somewhat hilarious timing). I worked in journalism for years and thought I knew how to read and write, but now I have to read and write scientific papers and that's very different. You mention having a humanities degree, so I assume you've been facing some similar struggles. Even if the material itself is not too challenging for you, the format can be an adjustment.

What's worked for me so far is taking breaks and making lists. I was not a list or take-a-break type of person before, either. The lists really help with the focus. I landed on this study pattern: I take notes with pen on paper in my notebook, then consolidate each lesson or lecture's notes by typing up a summary in Microsoft OneNote, which I get free with my school. I find this process helps me stay focused and have a better understanding of the concepts. I also looked into different approaches to note taking and now use the Cornell method for anything scholarly (e.g. Lancet article, science or law book chapter, etc).

I just downloaded Deep Work by Cal Newport on my kindle and will check out the MOOC Learning How to Learn, both per recommendations here. Thanks for asking this on AskMeFi, it's something I idly thought about but never got around to digging into further besides what I said above. I think taking a step back and rethinking my study practice a bit will help me.

I also wanted to wish you 🎉luck with the medical degree💪 and join the chorus in saying you're not alone in going back to school or having trouble with concentration.
posted by jacquilinala at 10:03 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]


I went back in my mid 30s and did two graduate degrees concurently and I am fairly dumb and have a hard time paying attention. Basically I took the approach of realizing it would be a insane marathon and made sure to tell myself this everyday and took it as it came.

If I can do it I literally think anyone can do it.
posted by tarvuz at 12:52 PM on October 1, 2021


Seconding the books, A mind for numbers and Make it stick. One of the things I learned from them was that rereading was a waste of time. Now I read once and take notes in a form that can become flashcards while doing it. (At the end, I grab the batch to put into my Anki deck.) By doing flashcards instead of reading material for a second time, I'm actually testing myself on the material.
I also think I'm a better student coming back in my forties-- I'm much more efficient in my time and rarely procrastinate. (I occasionally let myself put off a disliked thing if I do other homework instead.) The hard part can be finding enough time in your schedule to do enough work. (Consider quick breaks, after 20 minutes of studying, like unloading the dishwasher or dancing to one song.)
posted by blueberry monster at 4:14 PM on October 1, 2021 [2 favorites]


The advice it took me a long time to learn, and that I always give to students taking hard quantitative classes for the first time is this: studying means working problems. That's it. Everything else you do - reading books, attending lectures and talks, going to discussion sections and office hours, making outlines and summaries and notes - are all good things that make life interesting. They won't help you pass. If you're not careful, they'll just eat up your time and leave you wondering how you spent so much time "studying" without actually acquiring the skills you need to pass tests. Ask for practice tests, seek out old homeworks and exams, find online materials from similar classes at other schools, ask for recommendations for related books that have solutions. There's nothing faculty like more than being asked for additional problems. (Well, usually.) You're likely to get a lot more out of spending an hour solving a problem that you'll never be asked than reading an entire book about a problem that you will be asked.

Personally, I can't do anything for 20 minutes straight unless it's mindless physical activity. Including lecturing to a class. Getting up and doing something else a few times an hour isn't something to feel bad about, as long as you do actually return to it when you can. (I also found having specific "study music" that I only listened to when doing work was useful. I know others disagree.)

Also, cheers on returning to school. In my experience in academia, there seem to be huge advantages to being a mature student who has clearly made the active choice to be in class and isn't learning how to be an adult at the same time they're learning differential equations. Don't hesitate to take advantage of being an odd duck - get to know the faculty and staff, spend your time seeking out travel grants and fellowships and cool opportunities rather than worrying about what your peers think of you. (Usually they don't think of you. Some may be intimidated. A few will help each other and you succeed, and they'll stand out quickly.)
posted by eotvos at 9:35 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]


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