The Best Studying Techniques and Strategies

Topics on this page:

Number one rule – Don’t procrastinate

dog with pair of glasses

We all have the habit to procrastinate to some extent, whether it is cleaning our apartment or studying for an important certification exam. By putting off preparation for an exam that will affect your immediate future, you are just shooting yourself in the foot – and you won’t even be able to give yourself medical aid for it, without proper state certification.

Of course it is much easier to say “don’t procrastinate” than it is to actually not procrastinate. “I’ll start tomorrow” turns into a repeated daily process of choosing your prime time TV shows over reading chapters from your anatomy book. But with the kind of boring approach to studying that most people use – who wouldn’t want to watch TV instead? Here’s the thing a lot of young and adult students don’t often explore, so it remains a kind of obvious secret: Studying does not have to be a tedious, wretched, pleasure-less task. There are ways to go about studying for that certification exam that engage your mind – and hopefully, even your spirit.


One of the things that can help both the pleasure principle and the effectiveness of studying is what you surround yourself with while you study: your environment. Using the scenario from above – studying in front of the TV while your shows are on, convincing yourself that you can do both at the same time – is not the kind of compromise we’re talking about. You will inevitably end up ignoring.

leaves on water

Instead, consider studying at a diner over a cup of coffee, which works for many college students. The environment is usually quiet, removed from other stimuli that are potential distractions, and most of all – no TV or cell phones (as long as you leave your cell phone off, but preferably left in the car). Plus, endless cups of coffee and some kind of pastry as a reward for your self-discipline – you can’t beat that.

If coffee and a diner are not a comfortable study session for you, than pick somewhere that is. Some students have been known to study best while at a table for one in their local pub – although this is probably not the best idea for most. More suitable suggestions for the majority of students would be the hour train ride home, a long subway ride, as the passenger in a long car ride, or any mode of transportation that doesn’t require your attention at the steering wheel. Of course you can create a comfortable, pleasant study environment right at home, too. Outside in your back yard on a big blanket, and a small picnic for one might be the optimal surroundings for you. Maybe it’s at a quiet park, or on your front porch swing. Just remember to pick somewhere that actually aids your studying, instead of distracting or hindering it. Don’t confuse a comfortable studying environment with being sprawled out on your couch with a bag of chips and a movie.

Environment includes more than just your surroundings. The people in your study space should be equally helpful. If your boyfriend or girlfriend insists on coming with you to the diner that you study best at, then make it a requirement to assist you with your studying. If you make your exam review and preparation a priority in all relevant cases, you’ll make it much easier on yourself. It takes self-discipline and maturity to know when to say “no” or “yes” to socializing when you need to study. If the social situation improves or contributes to your study habits, then go for it. If not, then be resolute in your commitment to study.

Simplify the content

Let’s face it – the certification exam for medical assisting is chock full of technical terms and medical jargon. Sometimes you’ll come across paragraphs of information that just won’t register into your memory because of the language itself. For example, if you are studying pharmacology, medication names and types can look like another language. Without consistent review of highly technical information, there is a good chance you will simply not be able to recall it when needed.

stressed out woman

It is also a good practice to re-state or re-write complex concepts or tough terminology in your own words. If you attend lectures as part of your training, use a hand-held recorder to record lectures. Start the timer at “0” at the beginning of every lecture, and mark down the timer’s time whenever there is a difficult section you need to revisit. You can even add your own “addendum” by recording your own explanation of difficult medical concepts, lessons, or terms.

Studying CMA or RMA practice exams and exam questions is highly recommended. On the AAMA website – The American Association of Medical Assistants, there are three excellent study guides:

  1. The exam outline
  2. A 50 multiple choice practice exam on anatomy and physiology
  3. A 50 multiple choice question practice exam on medical terminology

Or you can take one of our both practice exams which are more extensive and thorough. Both tests closely reflect the real exam. Each consists of 200 questions measuring your MA knowledge in a number of areas under timed conditions.

Using mnemonics: Know which study techniques work best for you

Mnemonics are a fantastic way to help the memory retain information, and to study for exams. However, people are unique, and unique approaches and methods are required from person to person, for effective learning and information retention.

brain work out with dumbbells

There are three basic types of mnemonic study techniques, based upon the types of learners most people fall under: visual, aural and kinetic. If you don’t know which method is best suited for you, than try one example under each type of mnemonic category for a few concepts, terms or other piece of information. Then compare which method helped you to retain the most information with the best memory recall.

Visual aids

A few examples of visual studying can include:

Flashcards: Flashcards can work for most students – whether they are visual, aural or kinesthetic learners, if proper effort and time is taken to make them worthwhile and informative. The reason flashcards can be so useful is that they can be modified to fit into techniques that work best for each person. If you are a highly visual learner, create some of the flashcards as stick figure drawings. Or you can find medical studying websites with images and photos for printing, cutting and pasting onto the flashcards. A decent website to make use of is This site has many visual aids you can make use of, as well as plenty of other studying resources, ideas and example mnemonics. If you study better when someone is going through the flashcards with you, don’t be reluctant to ask another student or family member to quiz you.

Graphs, charts, diagrams and other pictoral representations: Your anatomy book or study guide will likely have a human anatomy diagram. If not, there are plenty of anatomy diagrams that can be found around the web. Use these to memorize the required parts of the anatomy for the exam, and their proper medical terms.

For example, create a diagram of the circulatory system. Label each part with its proper term, and create a system of arrows or numbers that illustrate the pathway of blood as it is pumped through the heart, flows through the circulatory system, and how it is carried back to the heart.

Acronyms: Acronyms are perhaps the most well-known and popular form of mnemonics. They can be visual or aural tools, because they can be read or spoken aloud. A good example of a relevant acronym for the CMA exam is one that represents the range of joint movements: CRENS-M.D., which represents the body systems: Circulatory, Respiratory, Endocrine, Neurological, Skeletal, Muscular, and Digestive. If the simple acronym works for you, great. If you have trouble remembering the acronym, than create one with an easy-to-remember sentence for each letter in the acronym: Calling Radiology Entered Some Nurses and Medical Doctors. Using acronyms like this are especially useful for difficult or highly technical terminology that is difficult to commit to memory.

Aural mnemonics

Some people learn better with auditory aids. This does not mean that listening to a lecture on medical ethics is the most beneficial. Mnemonic aural aids can be some of the following things:

Audio recordings: This is a broad term, but it includes things like audio books and audio study guides. Recorded lectures can work well for those who learn best aurally, using the pause button to leave out irrelevant information. More creative approaches might be your own musical jingles to memorize key information. Another effective method is to read each question and answer of a practice exam aloud to yourself.

Rhymes and verbal sequences: A very good example of this is the natural rhyme that you can create to memorize how air passes into the lungs: pharynx, larynx, trachea, left and right bronchia, bronchioles, alveolus (“bronchi” is changed to “bronchia” in order to create the rhyme). Here are a few more examples of mnemonic rhymes and acronyms for remembering medical terminology:

  • Prolapse: When organs have mishaps, it might be a prolapse.
  • Pyloromyotomy: 1. Pyloromyotomy on baby anatomy, or 2. Pyloromyotomy gastro-intestinally.
  • Diabetic: hot and dry, sugar high, diabetes is thy.
  • The four basic functions of the skeletal system: PMS’S – Protection, Movement, Support and Storage.

Acronyms: As mentioned above, acronyms can be an audio mnemonic device, as well as a visual one, if you say them aloud. While the above rhyme is a good example of an aural mnemonic, rhymes may not always be an easily created technique. If you find that you cannot make a nursery rhyme or musical jingle easily, and the lecture or audio recording is also not effectively helping you to retain certain pieces of information, try using verbal acronyms or combining an acronym with a song-song pattern. For example, to memorize the parts of the intestine, which are the Ascending Colon, Cecum, Sigmoid Colon, Transverse Colon, create a rhyming acronym: A, C and C; SC,CT -or whatever works for you.

Study Groups or Study Partners: If you are a social person, studying material aloud with another medical assistant student can be exceptionally helpful for retaining exam information. Whether you use flashcards together, quiz each other, or play your own mnemonic games, consistently reviewing the exam materials out loud together can be a huge help in preparation – not to mention it makes studying a lot less boring or tedious when there is someone to doing it with you.

Kinesthetic mnemonics

As an MA student about to take the exam, you know that “kinetic” or “kinesthetic” refers to movement – and if you don’t know that, you have a lot of studying to catch up on. Kinesthetic mnemonics can be a bit more challenging depending upon the course, class or material you’re dealing with, since kinetic mnemonics typically means a “hands-on” approach to learning. Kinesthetic learners retain information best using tactical aids, tools or techniques. Though this method can be more challenging for creating tools, it also presents the opportunity to be more creative about studying. A few things to try if you know you are a “hands-on” learner:

Pin-the-Bone-on-the-Skeleton: To learn your anatomy terms, make a pin-the-term/body part game for each category. You can repeat this with all of the body’s systems: circulatory, skeletal, endocrine, etc. It will require some time in order to make the cut-outs or labels for pinning up, but once they are finished, you have a very solid kinetic mnemonic device to help you study.

“Practice” Medical Assistant job duties: When and where it applies, such as perhaps for taking blood pressure or taking a patient’s pulse – it may help to commit relevant information to memory while “practicing” these medical tasks, as if on the job.

Question and answer games: Games such as “around the world,” which requires a group of people, can help with kinesthetic studying and memory retention. This is similar to the use of flashcards, except one person reads a question, and two people “race” to answer first. The person that answers first moves on to compete with the next person. Whoever wins that round moves on to the next person, and so on.

The involvement of moving around the group as questions are answered can be an aid to kinesthetic learners for recalling information, because when they recall the relevant material, they have an activity and/or a specific place/person to associate the answers with.

Active Study and Review: Moving around while you are reviewing can often be enough to help kinesthetic learners. This can be something as simple as listening to music and walking around while reviewing the material, or typing up notes from class or exam review.

Location-based review: Because students who learn best with kinesthetic mnemonics and techniques, any hands-on experience in a learning environment is a prime opportunity to learn and retain important exam information. If you learn best in a hands-on environment and have the chance the work part-time as a medical receptionist, or volunteer at a free clinic – use this time also to mentally soak up anything that you could be tested on, such as medical conditions and how to identify and treat them, systolic and diastolic BP, taking blood and blood components, and anything else applicable.

Prioritize, familiarize, visualize

Set aside time in your day to familiarize yourself with any new material that is learned. It is a proven fact that when new concepts and information are introduced, if it is not reviewed soon thereafter, most of it is forgotten. You will make less work for yourself when exam time comes if you resolve to have the discipline and commitment to review regularly a few days a week, rather than cramming everything in right before exam time.

fear of exams can make it or break itIt is no secret that doing well on an exam also depends upon one’s confidence and self-assurance. When you have regularly and thoroughly reviewed, and can recall the necessary information in a casual setting, you have all you need to perform well on the exam. Visualize yourself taking the exam and giving correct answers. If you are the type of person who tends to panic during tests and exams, then by all means, sit down and take a few practice exams to both familiarize and visualize yourself doing the real thing. Be sure to also do everything physically necessary to ensure you are at top performance levels at exam time: Don’t drink a fifth of vodka the night before the exam, get a full night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast, allow yourself plenty of time to get ready and arrive at the testing location.

If you find that you are still a nervous wreck on the day of the exam, here are a few things to help calm you down:

  • Get up early and spend some time relaxing at home. Take a bubble bath instead of a shower, or light scented candles to help you relax.
  • On your way to the exam, listen to music that puts you in a good mood.
  • Give yourself enough time to get to the exam location 15 or 20 minutes early. Spend some time either sitting in your car or outside the building to breathe deeply, listen to music, or do some kind of light mental activity, like a crossword puzzle or a word game. This will help get the gears in your brain turning without the unnecessary stress of looking at the exam content.

While 50% of a good score on an exam is having the correct answers stored in your memory, the other 50% is being able to accurately recall the information from your memory – and this can only be done with a calm, cool and collected state of mind.