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Student-to-Student Study Tips: Physical Therapy

Disclaimer: All students study differently and the ideas below may not work for you. They are simply offered as possible approaches.


(from PT students Erin & Kelly)

Time Management

Erin: Time management can be challenging because you’re spending more time in class and you also have a lot more homework. I had to cut way back on work to just 4 hours per week. Also, as an undergrad you might have been able to cram for exams, but in this program there is simply too much to learn – hundreds of pages of readings and notes – so you have to keep up on a daily basis.

Have a System

Erin: I carried my planner everywhere. Also, every day or two I would write a “to do” list on a post-it and later I would add to it as things came to mind. I wrote down everything! I found that I was less stressed that way because I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting something.

Live on Campus if Possible

Erin: Having an apartment near campus freed up lots of study time because I wasn’t using my time to commute. Also, it can be great to have a roommate (or someone living nearby) who is in the program. That way if you have questions, you have someone to ask.

Where to Study

Kelly: I liked to get out of my room and go to a place where others were studying so I didn’t feel like I was the only one. Also, phone calls tend to get me off track, so if I person called I would tell the person that I’d call back later (during my study break).
Erin: At home, the danger is distraction. You’ll find anything to do – the Internet, eating, TV, talking on the phone. Sometimes I would study at home, but if I got off track I would leave. I liked to study at coffee shops and bookstores – Barnes & Noble and the coffee shop at Clyborn and Webster.


Erin: Realize your limits! When I was feeling guilty and was tempted to stay up late to study, I would tell myself that if was sleepy I wouldn’t retain anything anyway and so I might as well go to bed. After a good night’s sleep I was able to study more effectively.


Kelly: On weekends I tend to focus on studying for an exam. But it’s also important to have something fun to do each weekend (it helps with stress).
Last year, I went home every other weekend and I when I did would go to a neighborhood library to get my studying done.
Erin: You need to find a balance between school and the rest of your life. I would sometimes go out on a Friday or Saturday night, but I wouldn’t stay out as late as I did as an undergrad. Also, if I knew I had a social event coming up (such as a wedding) I would plan ahead and get more studying done during the week. I would study from 4:00 to 7:00 on Saturday and Sunday and sometimes more than that.

Daily Routine

Kelly: I would usually get home from class at about 4:00 and then eat and watch a little TV. Then I would study from about 5:30 to 8:00 – in my room or the union cafeteria or a study room in the union. I took a break from about 8:00 to 9:00 and then I would study from 9:00 to 10:30. If I had a test coming up I would study for that for most of the evening and then as a break I would study another subject for a while.
Erin: Sometimes during lunch break I would go over my lecture notes from that morning. When I got home from class at 4:00 I would take a break for a while – work out or nap or watch TV – and then I would eat. In the evening, I studied from 6:00 until 9:00 or 10:00.

Balancing Courses

Erin: Every few days I would decide what my top priority course was right then – usually a course in which I had an exam or assignment coming up or lots of reading to do. I tried to keep up with all of my courses, but each day I usually focused primarily on one.

Breaks & Motivation

Erin: I would often set goals for myself, maybe trying to get through a chapter in the next hour before stopping for a snack.
My mindset for studying has changed from my undergrad years. Now, I’m really trying to learn the material for my career and not just to pass the next test. I remind myself that this is what I want to do in life and so I’m going to learn it really well. It’s like the difference between hearing and listening.

Handling Lectures

Kelly: I found that I wasn’t taking enough notes at first. I had to learn to elaborate a little more about each heading. Also, I found it helped to include a “translation” of each acronym so I wouldn’t be confused later on. During the lecture I tried to listen for what was new to me and also important – something that might be tested or I would need for practice. If the professor said something was important, I put a star next to it.
Erin: Don’t be late to class because the professors give a lot of important info in the first few minutes. Figure out some abbreviations and codes to use so you can condense your notes. In terms of quantity of notes, I noticed that it varied a lot from one student to the next. I tried to focus on listening and understanding so I didn’t write quite as much as some students. Figure out what works for you. On Power Point notes I would number the bullet points on the slide and then number my own notes in the space to the right so my notes corresponded with the bullet points. I would also write notes for P.P slides that consisted of solely pictures.
For anatomy and neuro it was really helpful to read the lecture notes on Blackboard before class so that during class I could just add a few notes to the handout.

Reviewing Lecture Notes

Kelly: I tried to always go home and read over the lecture notes I took that day. I might add a few notes I missed and I always tried to identify what was confusing to me so I could look it up in a book or ask the professor. I didn’t want to suddenly realize I was confused on the day before an exam. Reviewing my notes might take about an hour for a typical 2–hour lecture.
Erin: Each evening I tried to review the lecture notes from the day – filling in and clarifying, making sure I understood the concepts. While doing this review (and also during lecture) I would put a ? next to anything confusing. Later on I would try to get an answer to my question by looking it up in my textbook or CD or with a Google search. I might also ask a classmate or email my question to the professor (or ask during the next class).

Using Textbooks

Erin: Ask students who are more advanced about which books you should buy, which you should use as a reference, and which you will read all the way through. Also, you should keep some of your books to use later on. Before buying a book online, verify which edition of the book you will be using in class.
Kelly: Make sure you have all the textbooks for your practicals. Also, keep all of your books for later reference! For some classes, I used the book primarily as a reference when I was confused about a concept. I used all of my books heavily for the pictures and diagrams – very helpful.

Studying for Exams

Kelly: I often reviewed by looking at a heading from my lecture notes and quizzing myself while covering the details/answers. Sometimes as I was reviewing my notes I would make up some study cards for memorization. I used this mainly for lists (for example, when to use heat). I made up the cards about a week before an exam and I liked that they were portable so I could use them while riding the train.
Erin: I used flashcards primarily for anatomy. I set some of my mnemonics to music (for example, the mnemonic for the 12 cranial nerves).

Study Groups

Kelly: I used study groups most heavily for physiology. The groups helped me understand tough concepts and also sort out what was important to know. We met for 2 to 3 hours every weekend to go over the lectures from that week and we met for a longer period before exams. Besides helping me understand the material, the groups helped me keep up because I didn’t want to be embarrassed about showing up for the group unprepared. We would begin each session by discussing any questions we had. Then we would review the 3 lectures from the week.
Erin: Study groups can be helpful, although the downside is that you can’t set your own pace. A group might be too fast or too slow for you. I usually met with a study group the week of the test, sometimes during lunch. We would talk through the concepts and quiz each other.

Practice Tests

Erin: Most classes give you practice tests. Do these, as they’re very helpful.
Kelly: We would often meet with older students (our “buddies”) and they would give us a practice quiz. This was very helpful! For anatomy, I used the multiple choice questions in the Chung review book.


Erin: Obviously, focus on the visuals! Lots of students buy the Netter flashcards and/or the Chung anatomy review book. Normally, I just read the section of my test that corresponded with the lecture and then I would integrate those notes with my lecture notes.
Kelly: In lab, try to be the one working on the body because it helps you remember. Also, look at other bodies so you can see a range of bodies. Buddy up with another student and go to the lab for extra practice in finding body structures.
When going over my lecture notes, I would take what was presented in words and then draw it out and check in my atlas to see if I was right. To review, I would try to draw something (for example, the digestive system) and then check to see if I was right.


Kelly: There’s way too much to learn in this class, so you need to find a way to prioritize the information. Ask the professor what you should focus on and request a review session if the prof has time (ours was very helpful). Try to think about what’s important for a physical therapist to know. For example, with a given disease you might focus on the symptoms and mechanism, etc. but not as much on the statistics associated with it (you might just recall whether it’s pretty common or very rare).


Kelly: For practicals, read the text before class and then practice with a partner. If you don’t have a partner, just show up early for class and practice with whoever is there. I also liked to go home and practice with someone other than a student. This really helps because you need to be able to use non-medical language and not have the “patient” helping you (as a fellow student would do). You learn how to communicate best, and the extra practice is important so that you don’t have to stop and think at each step. You want things to flow smoothly.


Kelly: Read the questions carefully. Remember that all parts of an answer need to be correct and one word can totally determine the answer. My approach was to first cover the options and read the question stem and try to think of the answer in my own mind. Then I would look to see which option matched best with what I had in mind. This kept me from being led off track by the various options. I always used the process of elimination. Any question I didn’t know I would mark and return to at the end.

Handling Stress

Kelly: Go ahead and gripe to your fellow students; it helps because that way you won’t feel alone. Also, take breaks during your study time and remind yourself that your hard week will be over soon and then you can relax a little on the weekend. I made sure I had a little time to spend with friends each weekend.
Erin: Make time for yourself. If you’re getting too stressed, find some help – don’t ignore it. Talk to other students, the professors, family members, etc. Take some time to yourself and try to evaluate the cause of your stress. Do you need to get better organized or cut back on work? Then try to change some of the stressors.

Competition & Support

Erin: Talk to the professors; they’re very friendly and supportive. They know this program is hard but they will help you. Also, focus less on your grades and more on really understanding the material. Remember that your competition isn’t with your fellow UIC students but with the students from other schools.