How to Study for Nursing School
If you want to be a successful nurse, you have to know HOW to study for nursing school. Luckily for you, I am about to teach you an easy 4-step method you can use to quickly and confidently study any nursing topic you encounter. When studying this way, you will not only feel prepared for exams, but you will save a ton of time, and be training yourself to “think like a nurse” as you go.
Unfortunately, many well-meaning professors will tell you to “study everything” because you need to know it when you become a nurse. In fact, they sometimes give other mistaken advice like “do more NCLEX-style questions”, or “memorize more medications.”
The truth is that you don’t have to know everything in nursing school. In fact, you only need to know enough to be a safe, effective, beginning nurse. But how do you stop trying to “study everything”, and learn how to save time and focus on studying only what you need to know?
That’s what the 4-Step Study Method will do for you. Let me explain exactly how to use it.
Step 1: How Does the Body Normally Work? (aka A&P)
This is hands-down the most important step, so don’t skip it.
I know it feels overwhelming to realize that you need to relearn everything from Anatomy and Physiology that you brain dumped a few semesters ago (or longer!). As if you didn’t already have enough to study for in nursing school! Fortunately, that is NOT what I am recommending. I’m here to make things easier for you, NOT harder 😉
As a matter of fact, even though A&P is the key to success in nursing school, you do NOT need to remember every single detail from that class. But you will need to invest some time into relearning it.
However, I promise that “relearning” A&P will be easier than you think, because:
- …you learned it once, so chances are that you remember more than you think.
- …you don’t need to remember everything, only the details that help you understand the nursing material.
- …studying the A&P is part of the 4-Step Study Method, so you can review A&P and study for your current nursing classes at the same time!
What To Do
If you want to start studying well for nursing school, start your study sessions with a 15 minute timer. This is especially important if you are tackling a new body system in class (i.e. Respiratory, GI, etc). Then spend your 15 minutes reviewing your basic A&P for that body system. Start with Anatomy (the basic structure), and then move into Physiology (function/job of each structure and the system as a whole).
Gastro-Intestinal (GI) System Example:
- Quick Overview: Look at a diagram and/or chart about that body system to quickly remind yourself of what you do and do not remember.
- Anatomy: Sketch a tube from the mouth to the anus, naming the major parts, organs, and other important landmarks in between (no need to be an artist, see my Cardiac diagram). For example, you would want to memorize that the small intestine comes after the stomach but before the large intestine, and sort of works in parallel with the pancreas. In addition, you’d also memorize that the small intestine is made up of the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum.
- Physiology: Now review what each structure does. For example, the small intestine’s job is to continue digesting our food and absorb the nutrients. The large intestine’s job is primarily to reabsorb water from our digested food.
- Identify Secretions, or Other Unique Features: Each part of the GI tract has different secretions. For example, a little bit of lipase is produced by your stomach, but most of it is produced by your pancreas. From your pancreas, the lipase moves through a duct and empties into the duodenum of the small intestine. (DON’T STRESS about identifying all of the “unique features”…just focus on the obvious ones like common enzymes, hormones, etc. If you discover later that you missed something you need to understand, the 4-step study system already takes that into account and you can come back and learn it then.)
Step 1 should take 15 minutes, max. Once you feel confident enough about the A&P to quickly sketch it out, or explain it thoroughly to a classmate, then learning how to study for nursing school will take even less time!
If you haven’t finished covering (or memorizing) all the A&P material at the end of 15 minutes…stop anyway!! If you’re a typical nursing student, you study almost every day. You will have plenty of time to come back and review more at the beginning of all future study sessions. In the meantime, you have to start learning your new nursing info, too!
Please, please, please…do NOT let your perfectionism get in the way and try to memorize your A&P all in one sitting. Trust the process. Reviewing A&P for 1-2 times/day for most days of the week, PLUS integrating it immediately with what you’re currently learning, will help you learn what you need much better than an occasional marathon study session.
Step 2: Identify What’s “Broken”
Once you’ve spent your 15 minutes (or less) refreshing your A&P knowledge, it’s time to jump into the medical conditions you need to study. Use your textbook to identify what is going wrong in the body for the disorder you’re studying.
Let’s continue with the GI example, and say that you’re studying Pyloric Stenosis. You read in your textbook that this is a condition that can happen in babies a few weeks old when the pyloric sphincter becomes enlarged, which narrows the opening. Since the A&P is fresh in your mind, you can quickly recognize that “Pyloric” is referring to the pyloric valve, which is the sphincter that connects the stomach to the small intestine’s duodenum.
And if you don’t already know what “Stenosis” means, you can break it down into two root words:
Simply by combining your knowledge of A&P and your root word vocabulary, you suddenly know a lot about Pyloric Stenosis. You already knew that the normal job of the pyloric valve’s is to control how much of the stomach contents moves into the small intestine (that was Step 1). Now in Step 2, you know that the pyloric valve is “broken” because it is narrowed or constricted. Understanding this will make Step 3 seem almost too easy, more like common sense than nursing school!
Are you starting to see the power of the 4-Step Study System? It saves you time by organizing the information in a logical manner, so that you can understand it more quickly and easily without spending hours staring at a boring textbook. And we’re not even done yet!
Step 3: Predict the Symptom Set
Once you know what part of the anatomy & physiology is broken, you can almost always make an educated guess as to what kinds of symptoms will result. If you know what normal is supposed to look like, then you can guess what might happen when it goes wrong.
This step is easier than you might initially think, so let me give you a non-nursing example first. You know how a bicycle works, so what would happen to it if I removed the brakes? It wouldn’t stop, and you’d be much more likely to crash! Since you know how brakes are normally supposed to work on a bike, you can make an educated guess as to what will happen if the breaks no longer work properly.
Example: Pyloric Stenosis Symptoms
Let’s continue using Pyloric Stenosis as an example of how to study in nursing school. If the pyloric sphincter is narrowed and constricted, then it won’t be able to do it’s job. And since it’s job is to open and close to let partially digested food move from the stomach to the small intestine, then you can guess that won’t be happening as well!
If the partially digested food can’t move through the pyloric sphincter, then it will stay in the stomach. If the stomach doesn’t empty, the food still needs to go somewhere…and there’s nowhere else to go but back up! Bleh. Vomiting is on the list.
In addition, the vomit will not have any bile in it. Why not? Because bile comes from the liver and gall bladder, enters the pancreas, then moves into the duodenum part of the small intestine. Since the bile is in the small intestine, and the pyloric valve is constricted, then when the patient pukes they will only be able to puke up stomach contents, NOT bile from the small intestine. And since you already read that this condition usually develops in newborns, you can expect those stomach contents to resemble soured milk.
Poor weight gain would be another expected symptom, because the job of the small intestine is to absorb most of the nutrients from the food that we eat. Of course, if the food never makes it to the small intestine, then the nutrients can never be absorbed, and the patient is at risk for weight loss, malnourishment, dehydration, and fluid and electrolyte imbalances.
What to do when you’re done playing “Guess the Symptoms”
After you’ve made a few educated guesses, refer back to your textbook and check your thought process to see if there’s any major symptoms you’ve missed. If you find that you’ve missed a major symptom, then make sure you take a few minutes to understand how the broken A&P created that symptom.
For example, you might not have realized that the vomiting caused by the sphincter being blocked would be projectile vomiting. So you can adjust your original notes to reflect that.
You might also read about unique symptoms that you hadn’t thought of at all. Like the fact that an olive-like lump can be palpated in the upper abdomen, just right of midline. But if you remember the correct anatomy of the GI system, you’ll immediately realize that is exactly where the pyloric sphincter is located, and that symptom will make total sense and be easy for you to remember.
Important Note to help you with Step 3
Don’t get caught up trying to figure out all the random, generic symptoms. A few symptoms that are usually generic would be things like fatigue, nausea and vomiting. These kinds of symptoms usually won’t help you differentiate between two different diseases in an NCLEX-style question.
Instead, you always want to focus on the symptoms that come directly from what is “broken”. Now in THIS example of pyloric stenosis, vomiting is not a generic symptom because it is directly caused by the broken anatomy…the fact that the pyloric sphincter is constricted so that food can’t pass through like normal. The more you practice this, the easier it will become to identify the difference between the truly important symptoms, and the generic symptoms.
Only one more step and you’re ready to maximize your study skills for any nursing class!
Step 4: Select Medical/Nursing Interventions Used for the Symptom Set
Once you know the normal A&P, you’ve identified what’s “broken” for that disorder, and you’ve predicted what the primary symptoms will be…then it’s finally time to determine the nursing interventions and medical interventions that might be used. Keep in mind that nursing and medical interventions are often closely related.
I think it’s usually easier to start with the medical interventions, and the quickest way to identify them is by referencing your textbook. For Pyloric Stenosis, the textbook reveals that treatment of choice is surgery. Basically, making an incision in the pyloric sphincter muscle so that it can expand and not stay constricted. This makes sense, because it is fixing the part of the A&P that is broken by widening the sphincter.
Once you’ve determined the medical interventions, you can start thinking about any relevant nursing interventions. Common sense and previous knowledge from your Fundamentals of Nursing class should give you a head start, then refer to your current textbook to double check yourself and identify any nursing interventions you hadn’t thought about yet.
Since we now know that a baby with pyloric stenosis will be getting surgery, we should be thinking about nursing interventions related to surgery. Consent (from the parents, remember, not the patient in this case!), NPO status, and appropriate post-op care are all important interventions to be aware of. But there are also interventions related directly to the condition (rather than related to the medical treatment), such as monitoring fluid and electrolyte balance, since the projectile vomiting puts the baby at risk for metabolic alkalosis.
Hints for Step 4:
Nursing interventions and Medical interventions will generally fall into one of two categories:
- Treats or manages the symptoms
- Addresses or corrects the underlying cause
For pyloric stenosis, nursing care such as monitoring the fluid and electrolyte balance would be managing the symptoms. No matter how well you monitor their F&E balance, it is not going to fix the problem, right?
On the other hand, surgery would be an intervention that corrects the underlying cause. After they heal from the surgery, they will no longer have pyloric stenosis at all.
Summary: Putting It All Together
As you can see, using the 4-Step Study Method simplifies your life by guiding you through exactly how to study for nursing school. You can:
- Refresh your A&P knowledge without wasting additional study time
- Be laser focused on what you need to know about the disease
- Make intelligent, educated guesses about what symptoms you’d see (also a great strategy for tests!)
- Zero in on the most relevant medical and nursing interventions related to the disease process
Best of all, you no longer have to settle for the “just study everything” method…you now have the tools to easily identify the most important information for every nursing topic you’ll encounter!
And now you know how to study in nursing school 🙂
What do you think of this method? Leave a comment to let me know!
Nicole Whitworth is the founder of Your Nursing Tutor. She has a BSN and an MA in Clinical Psychology, and has been a professional nursing tutor for over 12+ years. Nicole specializes in getting nursing students through school confidently and calmly so that everything finally “clicks”. She is also the creator of the Silver Bullet Study System, an easy-to-follow study method that automatically trains your brain to become a nurse at the same time that you study for your normal nursing classes.