As a second-career nursing school student, I thought achieving my BSN wouldn’t be that hard. After all, I already had a bachelor’s degree in journalism and several years of medical device sales experience under my belt. I somehow figured that by working in the same vicinity as other nurses, I had absorbed some of their hard-earned knowledge as well.
My learning-through-osmosis assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. I knew within the first month that nursing school was a beast of its own.
I wasn’t the only one struggling with nursing school stressors and witnessed many near mental breakdowns, breakups, and complete burnouts. Nursing students have all kinds of challenges when it comes to being successful in school. Nearly everyone has some sort of responsibility to juggle along with their studies, from children to working an additional job to make ends meet.
The key to nursing school success is learning how to study as effectively as possible with the time you do have. Fortunately, there is already hard evidence that some ways of studying are better than others. Aren’t nurses all about evidence-based practice anyway?
Here are five effective nursing school study tips, according to scientific evidence.
1. Break up your work into smaller components
One PubMed study found that medical students can study most effectively by “chunking” coursework into smaller, more appropriate pieces—making it easier to retain information, move between body systems, and create links between topics. This study method can help nursing students too. Let’s use pharmacology as an example.
By tackling the subject of pharmacology all at once, you will bombard yourself with what seems like a bottomless pit of drugs, interactions, nursing interventions, and side effects. Flashcards can be a helpful tool, but if you don’t break up the information into smaller, more digestible pieces, you may have difficulty making sense of it all.
Instead, break your studies into sensible parts. For example, you may want to divide your pharmaceuticals into drug types—antidepressants, antibiotics, antihistamines, antivirals, and so on. From there, you will learn that each drug type usually has its own suffix, like generic beta-blockers having the suffix “olol.” Once you categorize medications like this, you can compare each medicine as a group more easily.
You can learn to batch your work into smaller components in almost every nursing course you take in nursing school, from memorizing anatomy to exploring all eleven of the major body systems.
2. Study in groups
There are many aspects of studying in groups that are beneficial, especially for nursing students trying to learn comprehensive medical information. Sometimes your classmates, who may have a better grasp on a particular subject, can explain something in a way that helps it stick in your mind.
One research study examined how small group work enhanced nursing students and skill development. It concluded that if study groups remained “conflict-free,” and all students had the same motivation and desire to perform well, study groups appeared to help students retain more information than just studying alone.
When I was in nursing school, I remember having a tough time understanding the complexities of how the kidneys filtered urine. No matter how many times I reread the information, I was still stuck. Finally, I met my classmate, Jana, at her house to study the night before a big test. She talked it out a few times with me, and voila, I understood it completely and nailed my test the next day.
There are plenty of resources available for online and socially distanced learners to help you study virtually in groups, including Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. And remember to make the most of your study time!
Here are a few tips to ensure a successful virtual study group:
- Schedule a time. Also, consider setting a time limit so students feel they can fit the study session into their busy schedules. When possible, make it a recurring study session each week. For example, every Wednesday, the day after your Tuesday Introduction to Psychology course.
- Limit study groups to 2-5 people. You can have more if that works for you, but you don’t want to have too many participants talking over one another. Smaller groups make it possible for students to participate more.
- Have a game plan. You may want to have one person in charge of each study session. That person can be responsible for setting the agenda and making sure students stay on topic.
- Challenge each other to teach a portion of the material. Nothing will help you retain challenging medical information better than teaching others!
3. Study in different locations
Many nursing students are creatures of habit and love to go to the same coffee shop or library to study. But research shows that changing up your study locations can help improve your test scores and ultimately increase your grade point average.
A study on environmental context and human memory found that the simple act of finding a new place to learn gives your brain an edge to retain more information than you would by studying at the same desk every time.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, changing your study environment can be complicated due to social distancing, remote learning, and other public safety concerns. But If you have to study at home or in the same location, there are ways to switch things up. Try sitting in a different area, facing a new direction, or moving your desk close to a window.
4. Have a study strategy that aligns with how you learn
Before you dive headfirst, be honest with yourself about how you learn best. One of the easiest ways to do this is to determine the time of day you are the most productive learner.
Do you prefer to stay up late, or are you an early morning learner? There is no universally correct study time, as it ultimately depends on the individual and their personal preferences. If you don’t enjoy waking up at 5 a.m., then it’s probably not a good idea to study at that time (you will just hit the snooze button.)
Additionally, consider using a calendar where you can block off time for every aspect of your life—including personal, professional, and educational tasks. That will give you a more honest view into exactly when you have time to spend on studying. Without planning, it is so easy to think you have time for studying that you don’t actually have.
By blocking out study time during your most productive hours, you will be setting yourself up for success.
5. Create helpful study habits that’ll keep you focused
I could absorb my study material just about anywhere as long as I had a set of earplugs with me.
Here are a few other helpful study habits you may want to consider adding:
- Turn your cell phone to “do not disturb.” Cell phone notifications can be just as distracting as texts or calls.
- Let roommates and family know not to interrupt you for a specific amount of time.
- Stop cramming! Contrary to popular belief, studies show that spacing out your assignments is more effective than trying to remember everything at once.
- Manage stress with meditation and movement. The stress hormone cortisol makes it more challenging to recall information.
- Lavender and peppermint can be helpful study buddies. Not only do they smell great and help you relax, but they may also help you retain information and focus more clearly.
Successful nursing school habits take time.
Learning how to study better and implementing these nursing school study tips takes practice. But nursing in itself is a practice that you will continue to build on throughout your career. Upon graduation, you will find that many of the habits you develop in school will make you a better nurse once you get into the real-world setting.
Your goal in nursing school is to learn as much as you can. But don’t stop there. The best nurses never stop learning and growing within the profession.
Guest author Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, SCRN is a second-career nurse, freelance writer, mother of two, and founder of Mother Nurse Love, a resource for busy mom RN’s. Her nursing specialties include emergency room, neuro/trauma, and critical care. In a rare moment of spare time, you might find Sarah practicing yoga, writing, or attending a local concert venue with her husband.