Tips for success as a Physio Student

Welcome to our list of study tips to help you succeed in your Physiotherapy degree! The internet is full of stuff on How to Study, so we tried to keep the advice here specific to Physio. We split it up into eight short sections:

  1. Practicals
  2. Reading books and writing essays
  3. Working in groups
  4. Memorizing all that anatomy
  5. Getting the right mindset
  6. Understanding the field
  7. Developing your practice beyond the basics
  8. Go-to resources

Practicals

Be ready to feel awkward when learning hands-on techniques! Feeling all fingers and thumbs is an essential step to learning practical skills. Find a partner you can laugh about it with.

Overcome shyness and personal space boundaries. When you get on to placement, what might feel like invading someone’s space during manual handling will likely make most patients feel safer and more cared-for.  

Don’t worry if you can’t feel what you’re supposed to feel on palpation. Finding all those bony landmarks and muscle insertions is one of those things that can only come with practice, over time, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come quickly. Some things are so hard to palpate even experienced professionals have trouble. And some things aren’t palpable at all.

Visualising manual techniques is a useful way to practice, which means you don’t always have to have a plinth and a partner to get better. Try it on the bus or on your walk home.

Practice hands-on stuff throughout the term. You can cram for written exams at the last minute but for this is much harder for learning manual techniques.

Video yourself in when practicing hands-on stuff. It serves as a study aid for later, makes you focus more, and adds a bit of pressure so that it’s not such a shock when it comes to the exam.

If you’re learning special tests, take the time to learn a bit about sensitivity and specificity, and reliability. It’s hard work but the return on investment is huge.

Join in in all classes. It might be hard at first, but the more people in a classroom willing to ask questions and contribute ideas, the better for everyone.

Reading books and writing essays

Don’t look for the “right” answers. Physio is not a science, so even in seemingly straightforward topics there is unlikely to be one correct answer (sorry). Instead, change the ways you think about the question.

To write better essays, explore alternative perspectives. Most textbooks will contain critiques of key concepts, or you can search journals like Physiotherapy Theory and Practice or a website like Critical Physio. Or you can just google your topic + ‘critique’.

If you’re prone to perfectionism, identify what you really need to know. It’s great to memorise the the details of each layer of gluteus maximus, or the particular inflammatory cells that are found in an arthritic knee, but is the time spent worth it? I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from learning, but too often students burn out in the library trying to do it all.

Don’t feel restricted to formal methods when finding resources and references for essays. If you read something good, google the author and read what else they wrote. See who else they worked with. Check the footnotes for new stuff. Look for blogs, and steal their references.

Find a way to organise your papers, for example Mendeley or a Google Drive. Anything good you see, save it, and before long you’ll have your own personal library. And use a reference generator, for your sanity.

When it comes to writing about Evidence Based Practice, this table is handy to keep you on track for which words to use, when.

Working in groups

Consider studying in groups for every module, not just practicals. Sharing the workload gives you an opportunity to teach, listen to and discuss with your peers, which is probably the most powerful and most fun way to learn.

Don’t be scared to get formal with delegating tasks. It’s a good thing if everyone feels accountable, it means the work will get done.

Don’t be scared of being a bit tough with each other. It’s easy to slack off, do a half job of something or not push yourself to go to the next level. Within reason, a good team should spot this and stop it, not enable it.

If someone asks you to show them something or explain something, stop and ask, what don’t they understand? How can I break it down for them as much as possible? You will have to explain these things to patients one day in much the same manner.

Find an easy way to share work. For example, Google Docs allows you to share and collaborate on things, so you don’t have to email attachments back and forth.

Memorising all that anatomy

If you do nothing else, use flashcards! But use them right. Make your flashcards simple with one piece of information per side.  

Mnemonics are great and there are tons in Physio, but they can be a burden if you have to whisper “some lovers try positions that they can’t handle” to yourself every time you want to remember which carpal is which.

If it’s your kind of thing, use Anki, which is an app that has an algorithm that will manage your flashcards for you and show them to you only as often as you need to see them for them to sink in (a technique called spaced repetition).

Never memorise what you don’t understand. If you try to remember that sartorius inserts to pes anserinus, but you don’t know what sartorius does or where pes anserinus is, it will never sink in properly. Taking a little time at first to understand the context and concept will help you retain the information better in the long run.

Use chunking to memorise large amounts of information. For example, instead of learning fourteen contraindications, chunk them into, say, contraindications that pertain to the skin, to heart conditions, to malignancies and to musculoskeletal conditions. Any time something seems overwhelming, break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Getting the right mindset

Adopt a community mindset. Look out for others, and not just your study group. It’s hard for everyone. Sometimes you will need help, and sometimes you will get the chance to help others, which is presumably why you got into this in the first place.

Don’t put loads of pressure on yourself in first year. As far as I’m aware, at most uni’s its basically there so you can mess it up. Make as many mistakes as you need to and go into second year having learned from them. 

Let go of the idea that lecturers are infallible. Physio is a vast subject and changing fast and few people can keep up with everything. So, you will probably – in fact, hopefully – end up disagreeing with your lecturers about some things.

It’s okay to be disheartened, but not for too long. Many Physio students, usually some time in second year, go through a phase of disillusionment when they realise that Physio has some problems. They key is to realise that this true for all walks of life, not just ours.

It’s okay not to love everything in Physio. It was a huge relief when one of my senior lecturers confessed to me that she only really likes neuro; it made me feel less guilty for only really liking MSK.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Easier said than done, I know, but especially important when there’s that one guy in a practical who already studied sports science and seems like he knows more already than you could ever learn in three years (don’t worry, he doesn’t).

Understanding the field

Go down rabbit holes. If you find something interesting, chase it up. Look in footnotes or start googling randomly. Pull a book off the shelf that isn’t on your reading list. Don’t worry if it won’t relate to the exam, it all fuels your passion. In turn, this will improve how you think about other, unrelated topics. Read, read, read!

Find out where ideas come from, which will make them a lot easier to understand fully. Who came up with this idea of core stability, and when? Who were the Bobaths, anyway? Why do we always default to 3 sets of 10? Over time you will start to notice different branches in the tree of Physio, and get a sense of which ones you prefer.

Look for debate and disagreement in everything you’re taught. As well as making you a better Physio, knowing which of the people mentioned in your textbooks passionately hate each other makes dry topics a lot more interesting.

Ask senior Physios how their practice has changed over the years. This will help you get a sense of how trends have developed over time.  

Go to every free conference and CPD event you can find. There’s more than you think and students are, in my experience, always welcome.

Join Twitter, or at least follow groups on Facebook. This will give you a wider exposure to the world of Physio, in particular the newest ideas, both good and bad, which may not have made it yet onto your curriculum.

Developing your practice beyond the basics

If you are interested in one side of Physio, take responsibility on yourself to pursue it. Unfortunately there is so much to pack into an undergraduate degree that you can’t just follow along with your course if you want to move beyond the basics in one thing or another. Whether it’s volunteering for a Sports team, turning up at free CPD events or just doing some extracurricular reading, you’ll have to take it upon yourself if you want to develop to your full potential.

Learn the lingo. As you learn more about Physio, you pick up on the seemingly innocuous shorthand terms that in fact contain a world of controversy and debate. If you keep reading and listening, you can develop your clinical reasoning by finding out why people argue over terms like “adjunct”, “pain is in the brain”, “you can’t go wrong with getting strong”, “corrective exercise”, “issue in the tissues”, “root cause”, “power of placebo”, “guru-worship”, “structural approach”, “window of opportunity”, “structure is not destiny”, “the body is not a machine”, to pick a few at random.

Learn the dichotomies. For better or worse, people think in terms of binary opposites. Look out for dichotomies like “top-down vs bottom-up”, “biomedical vs biopsychosocial”, “doing to vs working with”, “hands on vs hands off”, “active vs passive”, “central vs peripheral”. Notice how easy it is to get stuck at one of these poles.

Beware the “fallacy of the middle ground”. There may be two sides to every debate, but that doesn’t mean the truth is somewhere in the middle!

Learn some cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Terms like “confirmation bias”, “overconfidence”, “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”, and bandwagon effect really do help your thinking (even if people often only say them to seem smart).

Don’t spend your money on any courses if you don’t have to, for at least a couple of years after you qualify. There is a world of stuff to read for free online and in your uni library. If you do decide to take a course, don’t learn some extra thing, like taping or acupuncture (unless it’s required so you can work with a sports team). You should focus on improving your communication and clinical reasoning, not adding to your “toolkit”.

Get comfortable with uncertainty because it’s the only intellectually honest position on most issues in Physio. Plus, it’s a huge relief to realise that you don’t have to be sure about everything.

Keep it Simple: don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that more complicated = better. This goes for assessment and treatment.

Be prepared for the corny stuff to end up being true. The fact is that once you’ve learned every origin and insertion, every mobilisation technique, every principle of exercise prescription, every special test – you realise that the advice about listening to the patient and developing a good therapeutic relationship is 90% of what matters anyway.

Go-to resources

How to Study: Marty Lobdell, Thomas Frank, Cal Newport.

Textbooks: Brukner & Khan; Reiman’s Orthopaedic Clinical Examination; Maitland; Grieve’s Modern MSK Medicine, Pain a Textbook for Therapists are all great. Make sure you get an edition published in the last five years, because knowledge has developed very quickly recently. Remember, even in recent additions there will be plenty of stuff to be sceptical about.

Books: Explain Pain by Moseley and Butler, Aches and Pains by Louis Gifford, Understanding Physio Research by Chris Littlewood, How to Read a Paper by Trish Greenhalgh… but generally read anything you can get your hands on, including fiction!

Podcasts: The Physio Matters Podcast, Clinical Edge, PT Podcast Network.

Blogs: The list is endless but PainSci, The Science PT, Adam Meakins, Bronnie Thompson, My Cuppa Joe, Critical PhysioPhysio Meets Science are good places to start…

Youtube: Physio Tutors, Khan Academy, Doctor Najeeb.

Happy studying!

Thanks to Ben Ellis, Andreas Ljung, Warren Caffrey, Chris Mulvaney and Niamh Williams for contributions 🙂

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