Studying advice: The rule of four passes

The Rule of four passes


As you all might know I have a lot of articles about studying advice. That’s because I believe there is a science to effective studying and anyone can improve their grades if they learn how to be an effective studier. I am constantly evaluating my methods of studying and realizing what works well and what doesn’t. It is important that we learn to be efficient with our studying methods and utilize methods that have been shown to work. You need to constantly be refining your study methods and making it more efficient for you. During my first year of medical school, I have realized yet another component to this “science of effective studying”.  Something I call the rule of four passes.

So what is the rule of four passes? Essentially it takes at least four complete passes through your lecture material/powerpoint from start to finish to be able to retain it for the exam. This means that just looking at a lecture or powerpoint once or twice is usually not enough to learn the material well enough for an exam. This depends a lot also on the density of the material. This is especially true when you are in medical school and you have lecture powerpoints that are 130 slides of dense material. You won’t be able to retain the information by just going through it once or twice. It will take at least four passes through it to really retain it. Also I have found an effective way to do these four passes to get the most out of it. So lets talk about what you should do starting with your first pass through the material to the last one.


First pass:

So by the first pass I mean the first time you are sitting down and going through your lecture material/powerpoint. So essentially the main goal of your first pass is to simply get used to the material and get acquainted with it. It is not about focusing on the details or writing notes. Simply read your lecture material with the focus of just trying to understand what’s going on. Think of it like getting your bearings. You want to understand the big picture and what the lecture is all about. If there are things you don’t understand, look them up and research them. Other than that its just simply about getting used to the material.


Second pass:

The objective of the second pass is two things: Understanding the material more deeply and taking notes on your lecture material. So as you are going through your powerpoint/lecture material for the second time you want to be going slower and aiming for understanding the material more deeply. As you are going through the material you will now be taking notes, underlining and highlighting the important information.

Here are some examples of how I take notes on my slides:

Notice how I am trying to identify the things that are most important. These notes will help me during my third pass to focus on the highest yield information.


Third pass:

The objective of the third pass is to really memorize all of the important facts and information from the lecture you will need for your exam. Now that you have gone through the material twice and become well acquainted with it, you want to really focus on understanding it fully and memorizing what matters. This pass is about understanding the nitty-gritty details. Your notes and highlights from the second pass should be helpful here as it will identify what is important to focus on. Make sure you take it slower this time and really focus on understanding your material and memorizing all key information.


Fourth pass:

Essentially the fourth pass is a self-review of the all of the lecture information. Now that you have gone through the material three times you should understand the material very well and have memorized all the key information. Start at the beginning of the lecture material again and go through each slide and quiz yourself as you go through it. You want to quiz yourself on everything you can in the lecture. Make sure you understand all the things you could be tested on. Quizzing yourself as you go through the material will allow you to assess how well you know the material and if there is anything you need to work on.


Thats the four passes! You don’t have to do all four passes all at once. You want to take breaks between each pass through the material. This gives you time to absorb the information and let your brain to take it in. Its fine to even do the passes across multiple days if you want, I would personally recommend that. You can do more than four passes obviously if you want as four is the minimum I believe it takes you to be ready for your exam. If you are to do more passes through the material I would recommend focusing on quizzing yourself on the information and identifying areas to focus on. The rule of four passes really lets you know that you can’t cram for an exam and expect to do well. Doing well on exams and getting high grades has alot to do with multiple repetitions of going through information, similiar to the concept of spaced repetition I talk about in this article. I hope that you all are excited to add another tool to your study toolkit! This is a great concept to understand which will help you do better on all your exams!


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Good day pre-med students! I'm Wil, the founder of this website and part of the class of 2022 at the Medical College of Georgia. I remember the difficulty of getting into medical school and want to help as many pre-medical students as I can! Feel free to follow my Instagram and ask me questions! Instagram: @medstudentwil