When I returned to college in my 40s intent on simply discovering if my brain worked well enough to successfully tackle a Biology / PreMed degree (truly, I wasn’t sure), I had to learn how to learn. In many ways, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to study – especially the hard sciences. And without a strong foundation of basic science and math classes in high school, I often felt like I’d been dropped in the deep end of the pool with a bag of rocks tied to my feet.
I discovered that learning won’t happen just because I read a book. Understanding won’t happen just because I sit in a lecture. And application of the information nuggets stored in my head will be absolutely useless unless I have an intentional strategy.
I’ll admit, I have a bit of an edge simply because I read very fast, and I “picture read” (create pictures of the information as I read it) and retain information once its stored. However, it took me a long time before I understood the intentional strategy required to learn, retain and apply the ginormous volume of information presented at Mach 5 speed in medical school.
Here’s what I learned:
As someone who did the majority of elementary, highschool, and even college by homeschool, I always said that my preferred and most effective method of learning was to read. (That has since been modified significantly, but in my undergrad experience, this was very true).
As a medical student, I’ve modified that pre-reading thing. Its not enough to simply skim through the slides for the week’s upcoming lectures as when I would skim through the next few chapters in the 40 pound General Chemistry book. I actually pre-study. To learn. To understand. To retain. To apply. As if I’ll never have the privilege of sitting in a lecture. Over the course of each weekend, I go through the upcoming week’s lecture slides three times.
I don’t draw or paint. But as a classical musician, part of how I remember music is as a visual “picture” of notes on the page. To this day I can close my eyes and “see” the music on the page for Chopin’s Etude Opus 10 number 3.
Applied to medical school courses, I’m constantly “drawing pictures” in my head as I study. The list of essential amino acids I remember as a picture of a list on a page, and as a picture of the different R groups, what they look like, how they compare to each other, how the specifics of the different parts impact their function. Physiology is the same way – digestive processes and enzymes I remember as mental pictures, complete with color and movement. Each new bit of information gets added to the ‘picture’ in my head.
When I’ve read the information and have pictures in my head, I run up against the biggest danger, at least for me.
I think I know it.
However, recognition does not equal knowledge. It took me a long long time to really get this one. If I can’t SAY IT, I do not know it. Period. So that third time through my pre-study every weekend, I’ll simply glance at the slide for the next item, close my eyes, and explain it out loud in my own words.
4. Attending every lecture
It seems to have become fashionable lately to find ways / reasons / excuses to skip lectures. Not me. If I can’t attend in person, I watch the replay. Every time. Here’s the thing. Not only is it a huge respect thing (the amount of knowledge in the minds of my professors is astounding to me – as is the fact that they’re passionate about passing that information on to someone like me). But hearing the information is also another powerful way to understand new knowledge and put it together with the growing body of information that I hope to retain in some useful fashion.
5. Post study
There is nothing magical that happens for me just from sitting in a lecture for an hour. If I don’t do something with that new information, it will dribble straight out of my head and I might as well have slept in or watched a comedy on Netflix. Immediately I skim through the slides right after lecture, adding to my mental picture those points that were made more clear by listening to the presentation. Then in the evening, I spend more time doing “actual studying” where I use repetition and review to retain the new information. The final hour before I fall over into bed is spent in a quick preview of the slides for the following day.
Look up and name the first color you see. Did you have to guess? Did you struggle to remember the name of the color? How the word was spelled? How it interacts with other colors?
Recognition is not knowledge. However, my conscious goal is to know the ‘new’ information I’m being taught – just as well as I know my primary colors.
I remind myself daily to actually study, not to think I know what I need to know just because it looks familiar.
Pre-study. Make pictures. Verbalize. Attend every lecture. Post study. Review (the subject of a whole ‘nuther post).