As you get down to the wire at the end of the semester, you’re likely looking for a sure-fire study method that works. If you’re using the same study method for ALL your classes, it is quite likely that you are wasting time and energy (and possibly not maximizing your potential).

Each type of exam deserves its own type of studying. Knowing what works for you is often a result of trying out several different tactics and seeing what works…or, you can use my tips and get a jump on things. Sound good?

Study for exams that require memorization

You will hear it time and time and time again in nursing school that “scarf-and-barf” questions are a thing of the past. Does this mean you don’t have to actually sit and memorize the material? Not really. Let me explain. Below is your typical “scarf-and-barf” style test question:

Q: When would you expect to see increased WBC if a patient has infection after surgery?

A: 4th-5th post-op day

In nursing school, these types of questions are very rarely asked. However, does that mean you don’t need to know that the 4th-5th post-op day is the day when you’d be super watchful for an increased WBC after surgery? OF COURSE you need to know that. However, the question won’t be worded so plainly, it will be something like this:

Q: Your patient presents to the hospital with a cough and abdominal pain. He is scheduled for an emergent cholecystectomy and comes to you from the PACU. Two days later his CBC shows an elevated white count. Your first intervention is to:

A: Call the surgeon to request an antibiotic.
B: Inspect the wound for signs of infection.
C: Listen to lung sounds and check his O2 saturation.
D: Call the physician and request a chest x-ray.

So the answer here is C. If you did not know that post surgical infections take 4-5 days to show an elevated WBC, you might instantly go to the wound as a source. However, let’s look at our clues. He came in with a cough and he jumped his white count earlier than what you’d expect from surgery. So what could be causing the white count to go up? Cough…think lungs. Think possibly pneumonia. So, while you would possibly want a chest x-ray, you don’t have enough data yet. Listen to his lungs, check the O2 saturation and THEN go to the doc with the information.

So, while you do have to APPLY knowledge in nursing school, you actually have to KNOW the knowledge first…and that’s why memorizing still plays a role. So how do you do it effectively?

First…determine what information requires memorizing and what information is more suited to understanding concepts. Knowing that “hypo” means “less” is memorizing…understanding what a hypotonic solution does to the cell is conceptual. One of the best ways to learn information that must be memorized is by using flashcards. Below are just a few topics that can be memorized with the help of flashcards:

  • drug classes, dosages, brand names
  • definitions of terms
  • measurements, sizes of things, anything numerical
  • lab values
  • anatomy
  • historical information (love that theory class!)

My favorite way to use flashcards is by using the gFlash app. You can read all about it here.

Study to learn concepts

Learning concepts is so much more interesting than memorizing basic terms, numerical values and such. How I like to learn concepts is by using a multi-dimensional approach that systematically files information into long-term memory so that it’s there when you need it. The first thing I do is write out the concept in as much detail as needed to solidify it in my head. Then I access other parts of my brain…draw pictures, listen to podcasts on the topic (if available), reorganize the information, talk it out to my study partner, read various books or website on the topic, and then I go back and write it out again…only this time I use fewer words. Instead of using whole sentences to explain ideas, I’ll use keywords…as the information is distilled down I’d end up taking 8-10 pages of notes and condensing it down to one-sheet of keywords and ideas. Here’s an example of what that looks like for the Burns lecture in Advanced M/S:

Study Burn Nursing

Note that this is FAR from everything you need to know for taking care of burn patients. This was condensed down from about 10 pages of notes.

Study to learn skills

You also have to study a certain way in order to learn skills such as giving injections, placing Foley catheters, taking a blood pressure and so on. Here are some tips for studying for skills:

  • Watch videos of the skill (YouTube is great for this!)
  • Read through the step-by-step instructions, and as  you do so, picture yourself doing them. To solidify this, write out the instructions using simple keywords in a condensed format so it’s easy to reference.
  • Practice the actual skill over and over. If it’s a Foley and you are short on volunteers, set up a “fake patient” using a wine bottle or hot dog bun (sorry if that’s too graphic!). If it’s injections, practice on an orange or a hot dog (for transdermal). I promise I don’t have hot dogs on the brain! If it’s an assessment skill, grab a buddy and do the assessment until you feel comfortable with it.
study nursing school


Study to practice critical thinking

There are a few ways to study to practice your critical thinking skills…this is where you take what you know and apply it. Practicing critical thinking will help you on any nursing school exam, so don’t skip on this!

  • Care plans. Sure, you may view your care plans as a tedious chore that you’re required to do prior to stepping foot in clinical…but if you approach them as opportunities to think about “The Big Picture” you can learn a lot.
  • Case studies. If your instructors don’t assign case studies, then seek them out on your own. Case studies are an excellent way to think through a specific patient’s disease process, anticipate needs, make nursing diagnoses, develop a plan of care, and so on.
  • Practice NCLEX questions. Even if the NCLEX is a couple of years away for you, you should start practicing early. Sure, you won’t be able to answer many of them in the beginning, but that’s OK. Get a book that groups the questions by body system and shows you the rationale for all the right and wrong answers. Reading through the rationales is an excellent way to practice critical thinking.
  • In Clinical. Though you may be mostly focused on learning time management and basic patient-care and assessment skills in clinical, whenever you can work on putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. Read the chart, ask questions of the nurses and discuss the case with your clinical instructor.

By using different study methods, you access and exercise different parts of your brain making information more easily available when you need it. Plus, it keeps you engaged, reduces burnout and makes learning fun!

What’s your favorite way to study?


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