One thing that can get in the way of your success as a physical therapy student is the sheer amount of information that you need to learn. From bones and muscles, to diseases and conditions, to examination and treatment, there is just so much information you need to get into your brain, to pass those tests, competencies and practicals. And let’s face it; there are only 168 hours in each week, so after sleeping, eating, bathing and going to class, we only have a little bit left to use for studying.
The question is: what is the most efficient way to study this information to ensure your success? The answer is to focus not on everything, but on the most important things.
What are the most important things?
Whenever we have a seemingly insurmountable pile of work ahead of us, it is usually impossible to get it ALL done. There are always a few more pages to read, skills to practice and anatomical landmarks to learn. This is true in studying and in life.
Let’s say you are leaving on a two week trip to go hiking in a remote part of South America. There is a huge list of things you would need to get done before you go, like getting a passport, a plane ticket, and immunizations, and of course, purchasing and packing all of the things you will need.
Also on your list is researching the hiking trail, its natural plants and animals, local culture, and learning a bit of the native language.
Of course, don’t forget about all of the usual things you have to do leading up to that vacation, like working so you have a job to come home to, training so you don’t collapse on the trail, and all of your other regularly scheduled activities.
While it would be nice to get everything on your list done before the vacation, there are some tasks that just are more important than the others. For example, two of the most important things on that list are a passport and airline tickets. Without those two things accomplished, you won’t be going anywhere. These are the high priority items.
Less important would be learning the native language. Although it would be a nice skill to have, it is not essential for you to get to your destination. This is a lower priority item.
How does this apply to physical therapy school?
Think about your physical therapy education the same way. There are just some concepts that are more important than others. These are the concepts that show up more on exams, competencies and practicals.
The 80/20 rule (AKA the Pareto Principle) says that 20% of the work we do, will net us 80% of our results. This means that if we can identify the right 20% to spend our limited time on, we increase our chances of success.
Another way to put the 80/20 rule is this: about 20% of what is presented in physical therapy school will comprise about 80% of what is on your exams. If that sounds nuts, take one of your textbooks, or even just a chapter. Only about 20% of the information in any given textbook will appear on an exam. It is just not possible in the amount of time it takes to complete a semester to expect students to memorize every word of every chapter. Faculty know this and will test you not on everything, but the most important things (20%).
How do I find the 20%?
If you can figure out what those important things are, and spend your time studying them, you will be more successful. Here are some ways to figure out what that 20% is.
First, you can actually ask your professor. Raise your hand in class, and ask her to identify the most important concepts for the next exam, or the course in general.
When I teach my pathophysiology course, I tell students that the three most important things for each disease and condition we go over are:
- A brief description of the disease;
- Any red flags, precautions or contraindications for a patient that has the disease, and;
- What should the therapist do to improve the condition?
If students focus on studying these three things, generally they will know about 80% of the material on the exam. The other 20% of the exam relates to things like epidemiology. While it’s nice to know how many people are likely to have the condition, as a physical therapy faculty member, I am more concerned that you know what to do, and how to be safe with the patient in front of you.
Defining the most important 20% will differ from class to class. In many cases students can try to identify the intrinsic and extrinsic curricula that is present in any course. The extrinsic curriculum is the overt information provided that describes what the course is all about and what the students will learn, like the objectives, or schedule, or reading list on a syllabus.
The intrinsic curriculum is the stuff that your professor might not even realize he is doing. For example, if he spends a ton of time on a particular topic, like safe and proper exercise interventions for a patient with Type 2 Diabetes, this probably means that a larger portion of your exams or practicals will be about this topic.
Or, if you are assigned to read a whole chapter, that has 15 diagnoses or special tests or exercises, but in the lecture or lab, you only go over 10 of them, it is a safe bet that those 10 will carry more weight on the exam, unless your professor explicitly states otherwise.
So, remember, don’t try to study everything. Identify and study the most important things, and your success is all but guaranteed.