Managing Board-Study Disruptions in the Time of COVID-19

As you all continue to weather the transitions that are occurring in your medical training while adjusting to the new normal in a nation facing a pandemic, two things hold true: change and uncertainty are among us. As a medical student, these two concepts are uncomfortable and difficult to process. Please know this, you are not alone.  Within this post I am going to address a few items and tangible ways to approach this situation during this challenging time such as:

Dealing with disruptions during your dedicated study period

I find that the best way to deal with disruptions and changes in your plans is two-part: 1. Embrace the change and 2. Think about the big picture by remembering your end-goal. These two things go hand-in-hand. Embracing change is hard, especially when you had a future planned out that did not involve being quarantined in the middle of your medical education.  However, each moment away from what used to be your world becomes an opportunity to reflect upon the massive need for more health care workers. Your goal to be within that field is more important now than ever. Spend a few moments thinking about why you are on this journey. Remember that your goals can help you see that this is just a step in that process.
Health care involves the unexpected, and this is just one giant change within that realm.  Embracing and finding your focus now will continue to set you up for those changes that you will experience throughout this career.

Studying for your exam at home

Honing in on your studies during this time may also be difficult. You may have been used to working in a particular study location, and now that location is closed. You may find yourself trying to focus while being surrounded by any number of distractions. So, how do you keep focus?  Control what you can, make goals you want to achieve (material to cover and time to dedicate to it), and recognize that there will continue to be unexpected changes.
I encourage three things to drive your board-prep:

  1. An outline of what you want to cover.
  2. Something that challenges you to think about the material in the way it will be assessed. (i.e. board-style questions)
  3. Resources to fill in the knowledge gaps you discover when you are challenged.

A specific process involving these three suggestions starts by lining up a set of multiple-choice, board-style questions (10-15). You should base these on the material you are reviewing and studying that week and complete them. As you complete them, specifically identify what you think a given question is asking, and for each question, identify the following: How sure you are of the question (do you KNOW it (>85% sure), do you think you know it but want to look it up (50-85% sure), or do you not remember this information and really need to study it again (<50% sure)).
From there, submit your questions. Then review the content of the questions and explanations in a specific order: those you were >50% sure of, but got incorrect review first, then review anything you were <50% sure of and if you have not yet been studying the content of these questions for an hour then review those you were 50-85% sure of. This process uses your reflection of your own knowledge to gain more information and study strategically.  The use of multiple choice questions as a challenge and really reviewing the content of the questions you struggle with allows you to hone your test-taking skills, while actively studying for the exam. This process doesn’t eliminate distractions, but it can allow you to focus on one topic for a short time in the manner most-like the exam before moving on to your next task.

Managing stress and anxiety

Equally important to maintaining your study momentum is managing your stress and anxiety levels during this difficult time. You are likely facing new and different stresses each day with the changes in the world around you. Finding ways to stay level among this will not only help you now but also as you get closer to your exam date. Breathing techniques (breath in on the count of 5 and out on the count of 5), movement (exercise, yoga), and visualization techniques (seeing the outcome you want to see) are great ways to keep your stress levels down. 
One specific task  worth doing now is to pick out what you will wear on the day of your exam and decide where you will go to dinner afterwards to celebrate. Then when things get overwhelming, visualize yourself leaving the exam center wearing your outfit, feeling great about the outcome, and going to celebrate the huge accomplishment. Visualizing what you want to occur can help calm your nerves and allow you to relax  through the process.
Change and uncertainty, along with disruptions to your plan, can make you feel unsettled. What can you do when a global pandemic wreaks havoc on the plans you have for your future, right? But at the same time, you feel guilty for being disappointed. Both of those extremes, and all of the feelings you are struggling with right, now are normal. However, it’s important to begin to find coping skills to work with those feelings.  Disruptions are difficult to handle, so finding ways to continue to stay on-track while also effectively studying in quarantine and keeping a good handle on your anxiety are critical.
Kaplan Medical empathizes with the stress and uncertainty you are feeling and continues our dedication to your success. Just remember, we whole-heartedly believe in your success, even during the times when it is difficult to believe in it yourself!

Dr. Molly Johannessen received a PhD and MS in Physiology from University of Wisconsin – Madison and a MS in Higher Education from Walden University. She continues to serve as an adjunct professor within LECOM’s Masters of Science in Medical Education program. 
Dr. Johannessen taught physiology and medical education at both allopathic (Ross University) and osteopathic (Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine; LECOM) medical schools while also teaching physiology for Kaplan Medical.
As Kaplan’s Medical Learning Consultant, Dr. Johannessen specializes in curriculum development, drawing from her experience and her continually evolving understanding of the medical education landscape.