7-How to Study?
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Welcome to the I want to be a doctor podcast where insider information about what it takes to become a physician is available for anyone. I'm Dr. Robin Dickinson, a board-certified family physician and I will give honest answers to your questions. Today's question is from a student who didn’t give their grade and who asks: What is the best way to study?

I remember when I was in high school and we used to just memorize what we needed for a test and then forget it right away.  Over and over again. 

Then we heard about this concept called learning styles and that people have a preferred learning style.  Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and so forth.  I always said that I had a human learning style.  I learned best from interacting with a human, whether that was a teacher or another student.  It turns out that my sense of how I learned best was hinting at the truth of learning.

It turns out that there is no scientific proof for learning styles.  Because in fact EVERYONE learns better when information is presented in many different ways. Visual and auditory and kinesthetic.

But when you’re studying, you don’t always have a choice about how the material is presented.  It’s there and you need to learn it.  What does science say is the best way to learn the material?

Well, what is learning?  Learning is literally building connections in your brain and strengthening those connections and being able to access those connections when you need the information.  Athletes refer to this as muscle memory.  But it’s not really in your muscles, it’s in your brain.

When I watch my son dancing ballet, I’m amazed at how he can get his hand or foot in exactly the right location mid-air.  But it’s because he’s done that exact motion so many times that it’s wired into his brain with a strong and fast set of connections.  

So to learn the material you’re studying, you need to build the connections and then run your brain back and forth along those connections many times to make them stronger.  You need to practice accessing those connections.  

So let’s start with building those initial pathways.  As you’re learning new material, you need to be actively engaging with the material so that your brain understands that it needs to sit up and pay attention.  Most of the time, our brain takes the easy way out, lazily letting the information flow through.  Reading and rereading material, passively listening to the lecture, these methods don’t build roads in the brain.  Building roads takes work.

So how can you force your brain to start building those roads?  Find a way to get involved with the information actively.  Figure out how it connects to things you’ve already learned...or how it’s different...or makes you change your mind.  Create a chart that summarizes the information as you’re listening.  Imagine how you’ll teach the information to someone else--or even do so.  I started teaching my husband one lecture from medical school every day and it made such a difference.  That was the one lecture I understood the best.  Visualize what’s happening.  Seek to really understand it.

This is where I went wrong with anatomy.  I worked to memorize where everything was in relationship to each other.  As soon as something was flipped over or moved, I just couldn’t figure it out.  Once I was a practicing physician and started trying to learn anatomy in the context of how it actually works in the body, it made sense and I was able to remember it.  There was a book of clinically oriented anatomy that some of my classmates used when studying, but it was so much extra information that I also didn’t understand at the time that I was overwhelmed.  

That is why now when I teach anatomy for Dr. Robin’s School, I focus on why something is a certain way, or ways to figure out which way something should be based on what it does or where it goes.  Sometimes I still use mneumonics.  But they are useful just for memorizing a specific fact or name that you can then use as a base for building your understanding.

A mneumonic is a trick for memorizing something.  For example, to remember the order of the planets, instead of memorizing the planets in order, I memorized My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.  The first letter of each word is the first letter of the planet.  My is Mercury, Very is Venus, Eager is Earth, Mother is Mars, and so on.  This was back when Pluto was still considered a planet so Pizzas is Pluto.  The problem with mneumonics is that use in that way, they don’t actually help you do more than memorize the mneumonic.  I’m 40 years old this year and I still have to use that mneumonic.  I never really learned the planets.  Before using this example today, I had to double check that Mercury is closer to the sun, not Mars, since they both start with M.  But now I know how to use the mneumonic as a starting point so I spent a few minutes and added some more scaffolding in my brain so maybe someday I won’t need the mneumonic anymore.

I looked up why the planets are in the order they are.  I learned that the larger planets are further away from the sun and that Mercury, Venus and Earth are quite small by comparison.  I asked my brother, who knows more about this than me, if there’s a reason that the larger planets are further from the sun, thinking there must be some sort of rule about it.  But no, there are solar systems with the larger planets closer to the sun.  So now I’m actually engaging with the material.  I’m asking questions.  I’m learning more about the specific planets.  What makes Mars a good choice for a rover instead of Venus?  What do the planets look like on the surface? I'm watching videos and drawing charts. Now instead of my brain taking the lazy route, I’m forcing it to really think.  Yes this takes more time, but in the end I actually know the material. I've tied the information into my brain in various ways. 

It’s important to do this in smaller chunks.  You can’t study for 4 hours without a break and actually retain most of the information in the middle.  The first and last thing you study will stick the best.  So of course, your best bet is to have lots and lots of first and last things but creating lots of shorter study sessions.  When you study and then do something else for a little while, it gives your brain a chance to store that new information.  But don’t spend that time scrolling Facebook or playing Minecraft.  Instead, get out on your bike, draw for a little while, or do a household chore.  Something that lets your brain organize information in the background of what you’re doing. Because your brain is literally having to store and connect and organize the new information. You're not just pouring water into a vase. You're developing brain cells. 

That takes time. So spread out your studying over multiple shorter sessions rather than one long session and take breaks in between.

After a break, instead of immediately trying to cram in something else, practice remembering what you learned.  Because your goal is to be able to use that information.  Whether it’s in real life or on a test, you need to be able to pull out the information when you need it. The hardest part of learning is retrieving the information. So it's critical to spend as much time working on the retrieval as you do on putting it all into your brain. 

In fact, when I took the MCAT (the Medical College Admissions Test), I hadn't completed all the classes that would be covered on the test. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to learn the material on my own, I started doing practice questions and then figuring out why the right answer was right and the wrong answers wrong. The more practice questions I did, the better I got. I ended up doing quite well on the MCAT and also in the classes when I took them the following year. 

So those are my big tips, all based on how learning happens in the brain. 
Engage with the material, don't just memorize it
Work in short chunks with exercise, creative pursuits, or physical labor in between. 
And spend a large amount of your study time practicing retrieving the information. 

That's it for today. Subscribe, share with your friends and mentors; and remember to live the life that is right for you with your personality interests and values. 
Please send your questions to me at podcast@docrobinschool.com. That's podcast at d-o-c Robin like the bird school dot com.
Show notes are available on the podcast website linked below. 
This episode was sponsored by Dr. Robin's School and recorded in beautiful, downtown Englewood, Colorado. 

 
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