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EMS Class Success: 15 Tips to Help You Ace Your Next EMS Exam


This monthly series for students and educators examines proven learning techniques, sharing easy-to-use tips and tricks to achieve success both in the classroom and, more important, on the street.

Students with a plan are much more likely to succeed at both written and practical examinations. Here are 15 tips to help you not only master the material, but show what you know on that next big exam.

1. Set a regular study schedule and stick to it. Trying to study whenever you can “fit it in” to your already busy schedule is a recipe for disaster. Sessions don't have to be long, but they do need to be regular.

2. Specify your objectives. This isn’t just a list of chapters or topics. Set specific goals for each study session. You can use objectives from your textbook and course resources or you can set your own. This will help you to break down the material in to digestible chunks, and will help keep you from getting overwhelmed.
3. Don't try to do too much studying at one time. A little bit at a time lets the information sink in. Cramming not only leads to information overload, it leads to stress, which is the enemy of test success.
4. Study the most challenging information first, while you have the most drive. Once you have that down, you’ll have the confidence and the energy to take on the rest of the materials. You’ll also be able to use the study methods that worked for the tough materials to be able to really lock down the later topics.
5. Take good notes. This will let you record and highlight key information in your own way, not just the way they say it in class or in the book. Putting the information in your own words makes it easier for you to understand, connect with and recall when you review and answer questions later.
6. Today I Learned (TIL). Every day (or after every work shift, class session or study session) create a bullet points list of what you learned. This is not a list of what you studied or what you looked at. This is quick summary list, in your own words, of what you are taking away from today, or your shift or from class, or from this study session.
7. Don’t focus on memorizing lists of facts. You will need to memorize some information (medication doses, A&P, signs and symptoms, etc.) but big exams like the National Registry are formatted for critical thinking. While quizzes will often check your ability to recall facts, exams tend to test your ability to make decisions and prioritize. Keep this in mind as you study. Your goal isn’t to “learn the right answers.” Your goal is to understand information and be able to use it to make decisions and take action.
8. When you do have to memorize a list of facts, like pediatric respiratory rates, or the number of bones in each section of the spinal column, don't just read them, recite them out loud. You may not be able to do this in a crowded library, but you’ll be much more likely to recall the info if you practice this way.
9. Connect course information to the real world. Consider each bit of the material as it relates to a real person or situation. Imagine a scenario in which this might arise. How will you react? What will you need to recall and remember to do the job the way you know it needs to be done?
10. Focus on learning and using the information, not on grades. When you learn for the sake of learning, because you really want to be a good EMT, the grades will come. Passion and excitement for the material and for the result of using your knowledge can go a long way to helping you learn.
11. Find a study partner or study group to work with, even if you cannot all meet together at the same place at the same time. Just like working out, having a partner will force you to show up and get it done.
12. Explain it like I'm five (ELI5). Thinking how you would explain the material to a five-year-old will help you break it down to its most essential components. A lot of five-year-olds will also continue to ask, why? Why? Why? Ask yourself that when you explain. Do you know why? Answering that will help you to break the information down to the fundamentals. Having mastery of these fundamentals will let you manage new and more challenging questions and scenarios that throw other students for a loop.
13. Use the right practice exams. You don't have to always practice answering the exact same questions, but you should make sure your practice questions are of the same style and the same level as the exam you will take. For example, practicing with quizzes that only ask you to identify a correct oxygen flow rate will not prepare you for an exam that asks you to choose the best of several possible treatment option for a difficulty breathing scenario.
14. Consider making flow charts, diagrams or algorithms of clinical topics. Instead of making notes by listing information about a topic, try breaking the topic down with a flow-chart, algorithm or decision tree to help you identify what information you need to acquire, where you need to make key patient care decisions and what actions should follow those decisions.
15. Ask for help. If there's something specific you’re having a problem understanding or applying, seek assistance from others in your study group, peers in your class, or, most important, your instructor. The hallmark of any good student, lifelong learner and healthcare provider is the ability to seek help to better understand.

Feel free to share these tips with class mates. Success in EMS is even better when shared with the team. Now relax, take a deep breath and use your plan to crush that next exam!

Rommie L. Duckworth, LP, is a dedicated emergency responder and award-winning educator with more than 25 years working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and public and private emergency medical services. He is currently a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator. The founder and executive director of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine, Rom is an emergency services advocate, author and frequent speaker at conferences around the world. Contact him via


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