*Original post released on 7/3/2020
It’s the one make-it-or-break-it class for many programs, often at least one semester (or longer), and typically the foundation for everything nursing related…yes, that would be your Med Surg class. For my program, this class was divided across two semesters simply because there was too much information to cram into a single semester. As soon as we were accepted into the program, this was the class we immediately heard the advanced students complain about struggling with. When we took our fundamentals of nursing class, we thought that material was the basis for all our subsequent skills. However, looking back, I believe that fundamentals class mostly taught us about how to think and act professionally like a nurse as well as those routine skills we’d be using in our everyday practice (Ex: NGTs, injections, foleys, etc.). Med Surg was the class, in my opinion, that became the foundation of our critical thinking as a nurse, which is arguably one of the most important aspects of our profession. In this article, I want to provide some tips for success in navigating a Med Surg course so you can approach the class with more confidence and less stress.
First, actually take the time to look at your course syllabus to see what topics are covered and when your assignments are due. Medical Surgical nursing can cover just about any topic/condition in any body system, so it is imperative to devote your time accordingly to the areas that matter for your course. This is also helpful for the next tip: don’t spend your time reading every single word of every assigned page. If you know the topics you’ll be tested/graded on, focus your time on those areas within the assigned readings and skim the remaining pages. This is also a critical step towards making sure you comprehend the material, rather than memorizing all the content. Trust me, you’ll thank me later when you have to think on your feet without any of your study materials on hand. If you can’t make connections between the conditions you’re reading about, the body systems they affect, and how your patient can present with said condition (or what to look for), you won’t be able to fully develop your critical thinking skills. Memorization of the assigned materials will only be a disservice to yourself later in the program and also potentially for your patients later (or early on) in your career.
Don’t underestimate the amount of time you should spend studying your medical surgical nursing materials. You should try to be as organized as possible with your coursework and free time from the very beginning. It takes time to learn the conditions and medications to a point where you can start forming connections and thinking critically. Part of this skill also comes from spending time each day practicing NCLEX-style questions. These questions are organized in a way that makes you think critically about the situation presented. Not only will these questions test your ability to connect concepts, but they’ll also help you become more comfortable with the format…which goes a long way in helping you with your exams and that dreaded NCLEX. The less intimidating the question formats are for you, the quicker, and more confidently, you’ll be able to answer them. Always trust your gut by sticking with your first answer selection; don’t change your answer unless you have found content later in the exam that disproves your selection.
Try to formulate potential questions as you read the assigned materials. Doing this helps you retain the information and analyze the material from different angles. If you are taking an exam and get stuck, try approaching the question from a prioritization standpoint (ABCs, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, ADPIE, etc.). If one doesn’t apply, try the next, and so on and so forth. Prioritization is a major testing point for nursing school and the NCLEX. I’m also here to tell you that prioritization doesn’t just go away after you pass the NCLEX either; it is utilized on a daily basis in our nursing practice – no matter which floor you work on. If it’s not a prioritization-related question on your exam that you’re struggling with, try to remember what’s considered normal and abnormal for that condition or disease. Work hard to be able to recall the basic anatomy and physiology of various conditions and which nursing interventions are applicable, then you’ll be able to better eliminate answers that don’t fit the bill. Sometimes it can help to cover up the answer selections, formulate your own answer, and THEN look for your answer in the options.
Another way to maximize your study time is by knowing what type of learner you are. If you’re more of an auditory learner, see if you can record the lectures and re-listen to them later. If you’re an auditory/visual learner, track down some YouTube videos of the concepts learned in class…just make sure they’re from a reputable source (Ex: Cathy Parkes, Nicole Kupchik, Khan Academy, etc.). Sometimes, hearing and seeing a topic explained in a different way can enhance your comprehension of the subject exponentially. Another method for a visual learner can be creating concept maps. These are particularly helpful when learning about a condition or disease. For me, one of the ways I learned Med Surg concepts best would be to listen or watch a video before reading on the subject, then read the passage in my textbook, re-watch the video (which should make more sense the second time), make a concept map or study guide entry about the topic, and teach someone else the material. If your professor doesn’t offer a study guide outline, make your own! Use the objectives from your assigned readings as the outline for your own study guide. A short time after realizing this approach was working, my study guides/sessions became a hot commodity in our cohort.
As early on in your program as possible, find a group of people you study well with. I’m not talking about having a group of friends to study with; you don’t necessarily want to study with your friends. Even though friends are great for moral/emotional support, uplifting the mood, and making nursing school THAT much better, they can also be one of your worst distractions. Think about it…how many times has a well intended study session with friends turned into an off-topic conversation with snacks and drinks that never seems to get back on track? If you’re competitive, find the person you’re “competing” against and study with them. That’ll only push you both to study harder and learn the material better. Let’s face it, most of us in nursing school are pretty darn competitive…and that just doesn’t magically go away as soon as you’re accepted into the program. Also, keep an open mind. You may find that this person you’re competing against becomes one of your closest allies throughout your career, constantly driving you to be a better person/professional. Take the time to be this for someone else as well. I can assure you it is one of the most rewarding feelings.
Another neat tool I found and used throughout nursing school was quizlet. I’m sure many of you are already aware that you can find just about any question and answer on there, but that’s not what I used it for. Many of my classmates did, and while it may have helped them pass in some situations, they didn’t actually learn the material on the exam. How I used quizlet was a bit different. I’d take my notes from lecture and create my own flashcards under my account with my laptop. Then, I’d sign in on the app with my phone, bring up the set of cards, and set it to play with audio. If I was driving, I’d have it quiz me aloud as I drove using the bluetooth feature of my car or headphones. Same scenario if I was walking around on campus. Now the flashcards had a visual and audio component to enhance my learning of the material. Yes, the flashcards were helping me memorize the lecture material, but I had the material down to a point where I could build off it and onto other concepts. The voice drills the cards at you so quickly, you have to know the material extremely well to keep up.
These are quite a few tips to take in, but I’m sure that you’ll find an approach to your Med Surg course that works for you! Just remember that you’ve got this! If your school didn’t think you could handle the material, the pressure nursing school brings, and the clinical scenarios, they wouldn’t have accepted you (out of all the other applicants they turned away) for their program. You’re there for a reason, and I know you’re going to rock your Med Surg class! You can always reach out to me with a question, for advice, or even to vent.