I’m excited that this Monday I will be chatting via Snap Chat to premeds and med students via MEDtakeover (@medtakeovers) about my training and career. Similarly, I had a request a while back from another instagram user @medicine_bh to talk about my tips and strategies for studying and how I organise my time, so I thought I’d put a bit up here and try to make it a little generic rather than solely medically focussed- we all need to learn!
The Science of Learning
I’m not going to be specific about this and quote you papers I’ve not read- I think as a general statement, many of us have heard at some point about the ‘plasticity’ the developing brain. This basically refers to the fact that children have an incredible ability to soak up new information like a sponge- they learn how to use their limbs to move around, move their tongue to form sounds, learn to speak…
Meanwhile, by the time we become adults, learning seems much harder. There is a lot of data on adult learning theory out there and I suggest if you’re interested that you have a look, particularly if you enjoy teaching and science communication. But I find that the thing that really makes a difference, whether you’re an adult or a child, is practice. When children learn a new skill, they rarely just stop doing it- they build on it. And this is fundamental, I think, to anything we do.
I’m still pretty confident though that I was wwwaaaaaaaaayyyy smarter as a child!
General Top Tips for Learning New Information
First and foremost, being a medical student is less about being “REALLY clever” and more about being able to rote-learn a lot of new information. That’s not to say that we’re daft, obviously, but the way we learn may not always be helpful for the way others need to learn. So if you have any questions then please contact me via my instagram- I have managed to learn more than medicine with these tips, I promise!
- How do you learn? Think back to when you were a child- what memory games stuck with you? Are you a visual, written or aural learner? So when I was little, I loved games like ‘Pairs’ where you remember where cards were on the table/floor and match them to make pairs. And the game where you recall which item may have been taken away from the tray of objects, having only seen them once? Essentially though, it still took me until I was sat in a secondary school exams, remembering in detail all the pictures on the page of my textbook that I knew would have the answer to the question I was being asked (but often not the words that were the answer!) to realise that I am a visual learner. Once I worked this out, I changed the way I showed myself information. Essentially, I like pictures.
- What sort of learner are you? There are some great websites about adult learning styles that may be helpful for you to look at. I totally admire the way my husband’s brain works because it is so different to mine- he is an amazing problem solver and likes to really think through things in a variety of ways before coming to a conclusion. However, I get frustrated sometimes because this can delay his decision making. I was reading one of these adult learning websites and found out that he suffers with an issue common to his learning style- “analysis paralysis” whereas my learning style means that I’d rather try something and work it out as I go along based on my instinct. This has actually made me far more accommodating of him and less frustrated by it- it’s just the way his amazing brain functions.
- Repetition. This really is key. You need to expose yourself repeatedly to a concept before it can become second nature. This often feels difficult in medicine before you get to practise the profession but there are other ways to make this happen. One way I used to use was post-it notes. Writing the information down in a more precise way was helpful. Then I’d stick it up on walls/fridges/ceilings so I kept seeing the information. For my A-Level Latin exam I actually recorded myself reading out the texts I needed to learn and then played them to myself as I went to sleep. Repeatedly. (I knew I wasn’t going to pass Latin easily at that level otherwise!!).
- “See one, do one, TEACH one.” This is a common phrase that we use regarding practical skills within medicine and pretty succinctly describes adult learning of a new skill. See the skill being done, then do the skill under supervision and eventually teach it to someone else (‘one’ is not literal!!). Teaching is a fantastic way of being challenged on your understanding and that is often why it is daunting. Create an atmosphere of learning though and if you don’t the answer then tell the pupil you’ll get back to them. I spent a lot of time ‘teaching’ our neighbour’s cat medicine in 3rd year because I found that talking through the subject really helped me commit it to memory. Also, cats don’t tend to ask too many questions…
- Study groups. I was honestly never keen on these when I was at medical school. A lot of my friends were male and got competitive and raucous with each other and I felt shy, even when they were supportive and not teasing each other! However, if you find a good study group, these can be very helpful and a bit like finding an exercise partner- they can encourage you to learn more ultimately.
- Start your work. This particularly applies to academic writers and those of you doing essays. Just put something on paper. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be an output.
- The 80/20 rule. Look it up. There is no point doing something half heartedly. Accept when you’re not ‘in the zone’ and doing something else. Then come back to the task: you’ll probably be far more productive.
- Perfection is the enemy of the good. This relates well to point 6 and basically means don’t overthink things. There will be others that have done your subject before or have experience in your field that you can reach out to. If you’re stuck, don’t beat yourself up trying to make an output perfect or struggling to understand something perfectly. Just reach out, even if you’re starting point feels inadequate and you can polish things later.
I’m going to leave the top tips to those above for now, as I do want to keep it general. The most important thing is to make sure that you understand your own learning style and then use it to its advantage. I’ll leave you with some things that I wish someone had told me when I was at uni:
- You’ll be a suprisingly good doctor because you care about what you do.
- Enthusiasm is everything- find what you enjoy.
- Do more exercise- it’s a way of chilling out and helps you learn.
- Sleep more (I need to keep telling myself this even now!!) and aim for 7-8 hours a night.
- Having time off is as important as working hard. Timetable that in and don’t feel guilty about it.
- No matter how hard you try, “noone achieves anything until they have The Fear.”
- Eat little and often and eat as healthily as possible. Again, it helps your body and your mind.
- Keep practising reading- it is a skill, you can get bad at it. Therefore, read fiction even when you’re studying hard.
- Not knowing something in your profession is TOTALLY allowed. Learn your emergency conditions but even then, you are still allowed, and usually still have time, to look things up. You are only human.
- Determination is also key. If life skills like the ones you want to learn were easy, they also wouldn’t be as satisfying. Work hard and play hard and have fun.
Hope this helps, guys.
PS: I will look up the website I used for learning styles and update this blog post later but I have to run.