The PA School Study Tips That Helped Me Tackle Didactic Year

November 11, 2020
A common sentiment you’ll hear during didactic and clinical years is that learning in PA school is like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant. The volume of information you receive from 8–9 hours of lecture per day can feel overwhelming, and excelling at assessments takes countless study strategies and perseverance. Not every study tip or resource works for every student, and everyone needs to have strategies that align with their goals and learning styles.

Learning styles describe how people learn best—common ones include visual, auditory, kinesthetic, social, and solitary, among others. Some students tend to favor one style, while others like a combination. You might see pages in your textbook in such detail that you can recall images, captions, and heading colors (a visual learner). Perhaps you can recite verbatim snippets of lectures (as well as your favorite movies—an auditory learner). Maybe you prefer drawing on whiteboards, walking around a room, or performing tasks while reviewing materials (a kinesthetic learner). And study groups might be your key to success, or you could do your best learning while you’re alone. The key is to figure out what works for you and stick with it, but get creative—a new study technique might help make concepts click.

Tips about studying the organ systems in didactic year

These multiple-choice exams focus on information relating to each organ system, including anatomy & physiology, epidemiology, pathophysiology, signs and symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment. Here’s how I recommend studying:

  1. Review syllabi early to create your study plan and write it on a calendar. I looked for diseases, procedures, and any additional assignments like papers or presentations. This allowed me to focus my studying in the 1–2 weeks prior to my exam, which were at 8 am on Monday or Friday mornings. I preferred studying weekday mornings before lectures as well as on Saturday and Sunday mornings. On weekday evenings, I reviewed other assignments or relaxed.
  2. Review your study plan with your significant other, close family, and friends. My husband and I discussed how certain weeks would be more demanding. Setting expectations helps prepare for the increased stress and reminds you to get ancillary assignments completed early.

Ideas for studying if you’re a visual learner
  1. Use PA exam review resources
    I used Rosh Review for exam prep. It’s accessible on cell phones, tablets, and laptops, the questions are easy to access in the spare minutes that turn up between lectures, and the graphics and high-yield information are easy to screenshot and reference later.
  2. Use clear sheet protectors to help review material quickly
    Whiteout terms on anatomy images, insert into the sheet protector, and practice writing with dry-erase markers on the sheet protector. Wipe clean with a tissue and practice again.
  3. Create a digital spreadsheet
    Organize notes during lectures. Reviewing countless pages of slide presentations is an inefficient way to study if it’s not organized by system or category! I made a digital spreadsheet on my tablet with tabs for each organ system and corresponding pharmacology. I bolded, highlighted, and underlined information that was emphasized in lecture since that info was more likely to show up on an exam. These digital spreadsheets were beneficial during clinical year as well because I saved the document in a program I could access through my phone regardless of whether I was online.
Ideas for studying if you’re an auditory learner
  1. Recordings
    Most lectures in my program were recorded and uploaded to a website. If you like to listen to recordings at a 1.5 or 2x speed, these lectures allow you to do that. But remember that solely relying on recordings can be troublesome if and when the technology fails.
    Many auditory learners also do well when they record themselves explaining or making up songs about scientific concepts and then listen to the recordings.
  2. Podcasts
    Try listening to PA-specific podcasts or medical school review videos on YouTube. This can be done while commuting or even between lectures. Most podcasts are also organized by topic, so you can focus on your current learning modules.
    For example, if you want to review ECGs, you can search “ECG” on the page for The Rosh Reveal.  
Ideas for studying if you’re a kinesthetic learner
  1. Early in my PA program, I bought a whiteboard for my house. It was freestanding and 2 x 3 feet, so I could write on the floor or table. This allowed me to stand and move around while writing and drawing. It was a large enough canvas that I could write complicated information and gather everything. After writing out a diagram, I took a photo with my phone, printed it in color, and taped it to my closet doors. Every morning while preparing for the day, I looked at the photos and reviewed the information.
  2. One of my favorite breaks was lifting weights or going for walks. I used the time to scan notes or have my husband ask me questions. After sitting for 8–9 hours per day, moving, walking, breathing fresh air, being in the sunshine, and spending time together helped keep me motivated.

Tips about studying for skills tests 

I began practicing these timed assessments of physical exam skills 1–2 weeks prior to the assessment.

  • Two weeks out, I typed my script with directions for statements I needed to use and tools that I needed to access. Here’s an example:

Light and deep palpation of 9 areas of abdomen (right upper, epigastric, left upper, left mid, periumbilical, right mid, right lower, suprapubic, left lower.

Light palpation using 1 hand in each of 9 areas. Observe patient’s face for change of expression.

“Let me know if there is any pain or tenderness.”

  • One week out, I practiced the skills test. With a timer set in the room, I wore my whitecoat with tools in the correct pockets and even knocked on a closed door like the skills test. For the first two practices, I had the typed script to reference. After two practice sessions, I tried to complete each following rehearsal without the script and on time. I practiced twice each night. This allowed me to feel confident rather than anxious prior to skills tests.
  • The night before the skills test, I packed my whitecoat and tools so I wouldn’t forget anything. The day of the test, I would get a study room early, casually review the script, and make sure my tools and whitecoat were organized. I always felt confident and did well on these tests because I had practiced countless times before. Most importantly, I remembered the skills and statements for use during the clinical year and beyond.

When preparing to drink water from a fire hydrant, remember to have perseverance and patience. Not every study strategy will guarantee mastery of the material or a good grade. The goal is to successfully navigate PA school while connecting the larger organ systems, diseases, and physical exam skills. Through trial and error, you will learn to adapt study skills and resources to successfully complete PA school.

By Jessica DiJulio, PA-C


Get a little more clarification

How should I study in didactic year?
Doing 10–25 Didactic Qbank questions at home after attending a lecture and reviewing your notes will help you reinforce what you learned earlier that day. Plus it teaches you study habits for your rotation exams and the PANCE!

Read tips from a PA about how to tackle didactic year, including these topics:
  • How to study the organ systems
  • How to study if you're a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner (or any combo of these styles!)
  • How to study for skills tests
Should I use a Qbank in didactic year?
Absolutely! A Qbank designed for didactic year can help PA students tame the whirlwind of first year, build a strong foundation for clinical year, and ace the subject exams.

The Didactic Qbank contains well over a thousand questions that tackle the foundational topics of PA school, from anatomy and pathophysiology to core content areas like the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.

You can easily target specific topics in the Didactic Qbank, which is especially helpful after a lecture. This allows you to use your Qbank to reinforce the topic you learned about earlier that day.
How does the Didactic Qbank differ from the PANCE/Clinical Year Qbank?
The Didactic Qbank was designed specifically around the foundational topics of PA school so you can reinforce what you learn in school. The Qbank tackles the most commonly asked subject exam questions and includes explanations that address these areas for each topic (read more here):
  • Anatomy
  • Pathogenesis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Risk factors
  • Microbiology
  • History and physical
  • Differential diagnosis
  • Diagnostic studies
  • Treatment plan
  • Patient education
  • Health maintenance
Plus, the Qbank covers the core content area taught in PA school:
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Dermatologic system
  • Endocrine system
  • Eyes, ears, nose, and throat
  • Gastrointestinal system and Nutrition
  • Hematologic system
  • Infectious diseases
  • Musculoskeletal system
  • Neurologic system
  • Psychiatry and Behavioral science
  • Pulmonary system
  • Renal system
  • Reproductive system
The PANCE Qbank focuses on topics found on the NCCPA PANCE blueprint, so you'll be fully prepared to become a PA-C.

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