One of my regular dilemmas throughout physician assistant school was finding the ideal study space.  I’m still feeling it now that I’ve graduated and I’m studying to pass my boards (the PANCE).  I wrote here about my own study space shortly after starting PA school.  In this article, I’ll help you evaluate your study space so you can make changes if you need to.

So why is it so hard to find a space to study?  I think it relates to the high level of noise, activity, and distraction in the modern world.  We just don’t get quiet very often, or focus fully on any one thing.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way if I were 25, but at 43, the world is so much busier and crazier than I remember it being as a kid.

Why Your Study Space Is So Important

The study of medicine is not something you will go about lightly.  Once you begin, pretty quickly it becomes clear that there is more than you will ever learn in a lifetime, and as you learn it, you will continuously forget and need to relearn some of itBut don’t let this discourage you.  Though they seldom talk about it, doctors and PAs forget plenty of things too – particularly the things they seldom use.  Why would an ophthalmologist stress about remembering bilirubin metabolism pathways?  The one that always comes up in my primary care practice – even for my physician preceptor – is which murmurs get louder or not when squatting, lying down, standing, and gripping with the hands, and why.  But we always sort through it, even it we need to refer to a medical text.

How you study medicine has much to do with how well, how quickly, and how permanently you will learn it.  Having a good study space  will help you study more efficiently and effectively, and retain what you learn.

Pros and Cons of Typical Study Spaces

Here are the typical study spaces.  All have pros and cons.

Your Home

Pro: nearby, easy to get to, comfortable, familiar, bathroom and refrigerator nearby.

Con: often full of distraction (people coming and going, phones ringing, dog barking, etc.), can be too comfortable (inviting you to goof off, sleep, eat, answer the phone, and pay attention to whomever else is there).

The Library

Pro: free, quiet, reasonably comfortable, reference materials available, free WI-fi, power outlets.

Con: usually closes at 5:00, not open on certain days, that weird/nasty library smell, no eating or drinking.

study space

The Coffee Shop

Pro: food, drink, caffeine available; comfortable; bathroom accessible; free WI-Fi, many locations.

Con: crowded, many distractions, louder than you realize, crumbs, sticky mocha stains.


Pro: natural light has been shown to improve learning retention, fresh air, hopefully sunshine, possibly peaceful.

Con: weather dependent (cold, wind, and rain), may be distracting depending on where you are, may make you wish you were outside instead of studying, probably no wi-fi, probably no electrical outlets, hard to see a computer screen in the sunlight.

The Best Study Spaces

A good study space has:

  • Quiet.  It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people ignore this need.  Think you study better with music on?  As I’ve said before, the research on multitasking says you don’t.  If you are one of those people who go crazy in silent environments, bring some ambient noise, like a recording of ocean waves.
  • Minimal distractions/interruptions.  People coming and going, fun things to look at, ringing phones, background conversations, and fun things to buy all erode the quality of your study.
  • Ease of access.  metered parking and a 30 minute drive aren’t very practical, and may invite you to waste precious study time, or just blow off studying altogether.
  • Just enough comfort.  You’re going to be there for a while, so you better be comfortable.  But not so comfortable that you get sleepy.
  • Power outlets.  Notebook computers are a part of most forms of study, and extended periods of study require power.
  • A pleasant environment.  This is much overlooked.  If you don’t like your study space’s environment, you won’t want to study there.
  • Nearby amenities.  You’re going to get hungry.  You’re gong to get thirsty.  You’re going to need to pee.  You might even need something to do to refresh yourself when you’ve been hard at it.

My final tip: for some, WI-fi is a plus, allowing them to research with ease.  For others, it makes email, google, youtube, facebook, and twitter are the biggest distractions of all.  If that’s you, you might want to study without your computer, or find a study space without WI-fi.

The Bottom Line

The best study spaces help you forget the space itself, and focus on the work you need to do.  Balance the above factors as much as possible, and above all, do what works best for you.

Do you have study space ideas?  Drop a comment and let us know.