Studying. For most, it is a dirty word. Perhaps it conjures up memories of partying all day and studying all night, of cramming before a big test, or of that horror during the test when you realize you studied the wrong material…and you wake up in a cold sweat sprawled over your textbooks. Nightmares aside, studying and learning are essentials to being successful any situation. Because even when we don’t intend to, our brains are constantly learning. Without this perpetual adaptation, we probably wouldn’t survive.
I consider myself a pretty big nerd. While I don’t really care to list the many reasons why I’m a nerd (plus it would take far too long), one of the main reasons why I think I’m a nerd is because I love to actively learn about random stuff. Whether that’s just browsing through random Wikipedia articles for fun, looking at random books at the bookstore, or watching free lectures on iTunes University, I believe that there is always something I can learn more about, something I can do better, and something that I can do to improve the world around me.
So this article, which is filed under my journey to becoming a doctor, is really my analysis of my strategies to effectively study and learn – which encompasses really any subject, not just anatomy or pathology. I don’t think that I’m any expert on learning, but I do think that I’ve picked up a few habits (hopefully good ones) over the years as I’ve worked hard to learn, think, and apply varied concepts into what I know and do today.
I know for a fact that my approach is not universal – many of my peers are far more knowledgeable and better at learning than I am – and my ideas are probably not new, nor are they for everyone. But for the people who are still trying to figure out how to study better or struggle with finding an effective strategy for them, perhaps these tips can be helpful.
Tip #1: Identify something specific to study.
Motivation and inspiration are the first ingredients to forming good study habits. We rely on both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to identify things we need/want to study. This may be something given to you – perhaps you have an assignment, or a specific topic is being covered in school/class. However, perhaps you find a particular subject interesting and would like to learn more about it. Or need to learn something specific to accomplish a task, such as learning how to install a washer and dryer in your house. Once that motivation has been identified, the subject matter needs to be honed down to be sufficiently specific. Targeted, bite-sized studying is going to be more effective than a broad, shotgun, generalized approach.
For example, I recently decided I needed to know more about how to handle personal finances. I had read a few basic books on the subject and had been taught general principles on how not to get myself into financial ruin, but I had never really spent much time learning all of the technical details on how to successfully plan out how to spend/save our money in order for us to achieve our goals. Most of my adult life so far was spent as a student living in the quagmire of student loan debt, and, as with most young people, I thought most of that type of financial planning only applied to people further along in life who actually make money. Once real life hit me, I became personally motivated to learn as much as I could about the specifics – how to get out of debt as quickly as possible, how to save and where to save and what to save, investing without making risky or stupid decisions, planning for retirement, etc. If I had remained at the “I want to learn personal finance” stage but didn’t want to learn the details, I probably would be just as clueless about how to manage our money as I was before. So while I started out with more general information about personal finance, I quickly learned that the entire subject could be broken down into smaller sections – and by tackling each topic individually, I could manage the information I was learning in a more meaningful way.
Tip #2: Identify reliable sources and where to find them (and collect them).
This tip is very important, depending on what it is you are wanting to study. After all, Wikipedia has grown in content and in quality, but still is not considered a reliable source for research or any higher academic projects. But if you’re just getting started, Wikipedia might not be a bad place to start out to get your feet wet – plus, many of the higher-quality articles have good references that you can use. YouTube has thousands of videos from people of all different fields teaching how to do things. Amazon makes searching for books at low prices super easy. Most public libraries have online resources as well, and often provide access to digital media available for borrowing (for free!). Of course, for the more technical subjects, there are textbooks, publications, and lectures that can provide further information. And if you know what you are looking for, oftentimes even these more specialized topics can be available for free.
Understanding the reliability of sources is also important, because not everyone who teaches or writes is an expert on the subject. I think that while we all have wisely become more skeptical of so-called “experts,” there is still an innate part of us that wants to trust things spoken or taught from a position of confidence, whether it is right or not. Before I digress into a philosophical discussion about the “expert fallacy” and how our brains are wired to trust people we perceive as being in authority (I just watched a Brain Games episode on this), my point of mentioning this is that even though we often joke, “it’s on the _____ [Internet, TV, etc.] – and that’s how you know it’s true,” we really do have this tendency to suspend our critical thinking at times, especially if what we read or see makes sense with how we already perceive the universe.
So what does that have to do with finding reliable sources? Well, let me return to my example of learning personal finance. I didn’t really want to spend a whole lot of money learning how to save money, so I initially turned to the free resources I knew I had available to me – the public library, for starters, and then resources on the Internet. At the public library, I could check out books written about various topics in personal finance. Because the authors’ credentials would typically be listed in the “About the Author” section, I could get a sense of their experience and how their own personal philosophies might color the information and advice they opine. Online resources admittedly are a bit more sketchy in content, but there I learned from podcasts, personal blogs, and even free online courses to help me get a better sense of my personal philosophy of finance.
Then, as I learned, I could then critically break down the information into different categories:
- Definitions/Terminology: These are words and concepts that are used by everyone in that field. While every author may use their own words to define the terms, these words are going mean essentially the same thing, regardless of the source.
- Facts/Data: These are typically cited statistics but can also represent specific information that is quoted from an original source. An example of this would be a discussion about IRA accounts and the IRS maximum contribution limit per year for 2015 (the IRS lists this on their website) might quote the actual numbers instead of making someone go to the primary source to look it up ($5,500 per individual per year for people < 50 years old, $6,500 per individual per year age 50 or older, just in case you wanted to know). This information is easy to verify regardless of the source.
- General Principles: Every person organizes the information in their mind differently. At the same time, for any particular subject there are some very general principles that form the foundation of that subject. It’s hard to make sense of mathematics without some understand of numbers and operators. Language has syntax and grammar. Finance has debt management, savings, and investing. Medicine has anatomy and physiology. And yes, I know there’s far more to those subjects than the principles I listed. But while these principles may be called by different names, or explained in different manners, they are still used in some way to help us build the framework we need to learn this information.
- Opinions/Interpretations: This is the part of critical reading that I probably fail at the most but is still very important. Because everything we communicate will have some bias (good, bad, or both), I believe it is natural and perfectly normal to interject our opinions and interpretations into any particular teaching or discussion. Of course, this is also the aspect of critical learning that we have the most difficulty grasping – because people can (and do on a daily basis) take the same basic facts and form diametrically opposite opinions about a subject, it is important to recognize when a statement is an opinion or interpretation and when it is a fact. When I found conflicting opinions, I could learn more about each argument and then decide what I agreed or disagreed about those opinions without having to get emotionally anchored to a particular viewpoint. Understanding the author’s background is also helpful in analyzing the arguments put forth in an opinion.
This is why when reading Dave Ramsey’s books there is a strong and urgent sense about getting out of debt as quickly as possible – his personal story involves getting out of a tremendous amount of debt, and while he uses statistics and religious principles to strengthen his argument, his debt-aversion is at least partially rooted out of his own personal experience. Or when reading John Bogle’s books (or books written by his disciples) you get a sense of why he is such a big proponent of long-term passive investing through index funds – because his research into comparing active investing to passive investing has led him to believe that low-cost indexes are a far more profitable option for the common investor than working hard to “beat the market.” This doesn’t mean that we should discard all of the opinions we come across – far from it – but recognizing when dogmatic statements are opinions and interpretations helps the critical learner assess any source while forming his/her own opinions and understanding of a subject.
Now, this approach probably doesn’t apply to everything super well – when I was studying medicine, I don’t think I spent too much time debating whether cellular respiration was an interpretation of the facts – I just knew I had to learn it and understand the concept well enough to apply it to the bigger picture. But this is very important as I critically read about the newest developments published in the medical literature – because while there’s a lot of compelling statistics and facts that we’ve learned about medicine, a great deal of how we apply that information is subject to interpretation and how reliable we believe the experimental results are. Not only is it important to consider the source (certain journals may be considered more reputable than others based on their criteria for publication acceptance), but also to consider the biases of the authors (an emergency physician will write with a different goal in mind about a particular disease than a liver specialist – not a bad thing, just different).
I could go on and on about this, but hopefully I’ve made my point – even “unreliable” sources can be educational but a careful approach needs to be taken to analyze the information we learn.
Tip #3: Budget a fixed amount of time throughout the week to study; anything extra is bonus.
During the classroom years of medical school, I often spent 8-10 hours/day at bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries studying. In retrospect, I don’t know how efficient I was with my studies, but because I considered studying my full-time job, I was able to accept that pace of staring at muscles with funny names and pathways with 2-3 branches I needed to memorize. When I was in residency, I was strongly encouraged by my mentors to continue that high level of study. Their general guidelines were: 2 hours/night (after working 10-12+ hours) on the weekdays, and 4 hours/day (or 8 hours total) on the weekends, for a total of 18 hours/week. Of course, that was just a minimum guideline – if it took me longer to understand a concept, I might have to spend more time studying that night, or if the subject was easier, perhaps I could move through the material a bit faster.
While this pace is not realistic for everyone, I think that because I sustained that pace for almost 8-9 years (medical school, residency, and fellowship) this habit of taking some time every day to study has become second nature to me. Of course, I don’t sustain the same pace I used to when I was in training, but I still try to at least listen to a podcast on my commute to work, or read articles on the weekends, etc. If you are just starting out on this studying thing and are having a panic attack when you hear about how much time I spent studying, no worries – I am just providing an example of how I built up this habit of studying.
And while there are times when it is good and appropriate to do other things while studying (such as listening to a podcast or lecture while doing chores or working out), I believe there also needs to be specific time allocated where there are no other distractions to studying. The amount of time needed and the amount of time available is completely dependent on your personal situation and circumstances, but I think that in order to lock in complex details our brains can’t handle a lot of extraneous stimuli, and by budgeting out even 15-30 minutes of dedicated learning time every few days (or even every few weeks depending on what you’re learning) you can learn something pretty meaningful.
Tip #4: Be consistent and disciplined.
This tip dovetails very well with the previous tip. Once that time is budgeted out, being consistent and disciplined is what will lead to a successful habit. It can take a long time for the habit to become second nature, but that consistency keeps us from giving up too early, before we see the dividends of our hard work.
Tip #5: Actively learn.
Learning can be an active or a passive process. While I could write another lengthy article making the case for why active learning (especially when trying to master a concept or skill) is better, other people have probably written better arguments and since I want to list a few tips out here, I will just get to that.
Take notes: I finally threw away my notes from medical school a few months ago when I decided that I probably wasn’t going to look at them again. But in the process of reviewing those notes before I tossed them, I realized that by writing down those notes, I had effectively organized that information into a schema that I still use today to remember what I was learning. There are different ways to take notes – writing in a textbook, underlining/highlighting important concepts, outlining the material, etc. In whatever way works best for you, taking notes is a very helpful way to actively learn and retain the information being taught.
- Study with others: Not everyone is good at studying in groups, and not everyone needs to study in groups. But mastering a subject together can be a very helpful way to understand difficult concepts or retain knowledge better. For example, as I was going through residency, my peers and I would read the same 100 pages of text together and then get together once a week to quiz each other about the information. While we weren’t always excited about being there and often disagreed about what we thought was important, it was a good way for us to hold each other accountable to the material so that we could not only do well on our tests but also master the important concepts that would make us good doctors. Likewise, while my wife was in nursing school, she would hold a study group with her classmates every weekend to study through the material. They would laugh and argue and discuss and bring delicious food (that’s why I approved of the study groups), but in the end they would end up supporting each other and also hold each other accountable to the material they needed to learn so that they could be excellent nurses. So while it’s not for everyone, I think the act of verbalizing information and struggling with materials with peers/friends can be a really powerful way to learn better. Plus it means I eat really well every weekend.
- Come up with creative ways to retain information: If you Google for memory tools, there are tons of different sites and hacks and apps that try to teach you how to retain information better. Before I start discussing this further, I do want to make a distinction between learning and memorization – I want to use learning in the sense of mastering a concept or skill in a “big picture” sense, and memorization in the sense of remembering detailed facts. Memorization tools are plentiful, but learning tools are more challenging to articulate. Both are extremely important as a part of study, as some facts have to be memorized and recited, but the overarching concept needs to be accurate in order to understand and apply that knowledge in a meaningful way.
For example, as part of my profession I’ve memorized the major side effects to the 20-30 most common medications I prescribe. I recite them on a regular basis whenever I prescribe them to my patients. But how do I know when I should prescribe that particular medication, or how much to prescribe? To know that, I need to understand the underlying condition I am trying to treat, the mechanism by which the medication works to treat that condition, and how that medication might interact with their system or other medications. Each of those individual aspects may be full of other memorized facts, but the synthesis of that information is the part of learning that can’t completely encapsulated (yet) into an algorithm.
So while rote memorization often simply takes repetition, memorizing information for application may require additional strategies for learning. Some people advocate coming up with stories that help you visualize the connections your brain needs to make. Others use mnemonics, still others use illustrations. Regardless of how those connections are made, I’ve found that by trying to form as many links as possible in as many ways as possible, I have a greater chance of retaining that information, even years later. So though I don’t remember the room number to my organic chemistry classroom (even though I looked at the room number 3 times per week for 16 weeks), I will never forget that Dantrolene is used for treating malignant hyperthermia, because the name Dantrolene reminds me of a planet in Star Wars, and perhaps the malignant Empire was hyperthermic and destroyed the planet Dantrolene with the Death Star.
Tip #6: Teach to learn.
Sometimes we’re asked to learn something simply to teach it to others. I was listening to a podcast about personal finance and learned that many of the people writing about personal finance were people coming from non-finance backgrounds, who wanted to write about what they were learning. At least one of them was a journalist, whose first job was to write a personal finance column even though she wasn’t an expert in the field. But as she wrote and researched and learned, she became far more experienced and could eventually write from a position of knowledge.
Teaching what we’re learning is also helpful in demonstrating true mastery of a subject. While not everyone is going to be able to teach in a very cogent manner, I would argue that passing along knowledge to others is as important (if not more important) than being the most knowledgeable about a subject. After all, if you hoard all of this knowledge or are unable to communicate this knowledge to others, what good is it going to be 100 years after you’re dead and buried and no one will remember your brilliant ideas? Now, I don’t really think many people out there actually want to hoard knowledge from others. The more likely scenario (which is something I struggle with) is believing that there’s nothing I can teach that others can’t teach better. I think our insecurities about our own knowledge can often preventing us from sharing good information with others. No one likes to be criticized, and so the safe thing is not to offer anything out in the first place. But while we may not necessarily know a whole lot about a subject, we can always document what we’re learning so that others can benefit with us. So one of my applications to try and combat this is to begin writing out things that I’m personally learning, even if it’s silly or boring to other people. That’s why I started up this blog – not because I think I have everything figured out already, but as a way to share in the perspectives and ideas that might be helpful to people in the future.
Tip #7: Rinse and repeat.
Once I’ve learned one topic to a comfortable degree, that topic might spark interest in a related topic, or perhaps I’ll find something else that piques my interest. There’s always something new to learn, and by being proactive and strategic in our studies, I think it can even be fun to learn.
Are there any other tips you’ve found to be helpful in learning and studying? Post a comment and join the conversation!