Taking time for the how of learning, not the what

Posted by Anna on 4/13/16 9:30 AM

 It’s easy to get caught up in the content of learning: memorizing a formula, distinguishing eukaryotic from prokaryotic cells, and understanding the events leading up to the French Revolution. Most of the time we’re so absorbed in taking in new information as students that we don’t notice the behind-the-scenes work of how we take in that information, how we shelve and organize it in our minds, and how we recall and utilize it later on.


Those questions have been a recurrent theme in my first year of medical school. This is partly because we are the first class test-driving a brand new curriculum steeped in the latest research in cognition and effective learning. The other reason is that when doctors make an error in thinking and reasoning about a patient’s diagnosis, the consequences can be serious.

I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned in this realm with you all because I think it would have been useful to reflect on earlier in my education as we mold our lifelong habits of learning and thinking.

On cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are “thinking traps” that can mislead us as we answer questions (whether a question about a patient, in a class discussion, or on a standardized test). A couple examples:

  • Availability bias: We perceive events as more likely when it is easier to recall instances of that phenomena happening, which may not reflect the true probability of that event.
  • Anchoring bias: This describes a human tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making decisions rather than adjusting to account for other aspects of the situation.

There are many more, but these are two powerful examples that can trip us up when we are moving swiftly through an exam, thinking automatically based on pattern recognition. If a familiar answer jumps out at us from the multiple-choice options, we may succumb to availability bias. If we see what looks like a right triangle on a geometry problem, we may jump to the Pythagorean theorem before checking if the triangle is drawn to scale—anchoring bias.


Suggestions to avoid these errors:

(1) Try not to look at answer choices until you have your own idea of an answer formulated in your mind.

(2) Practice distinguishing between when you need to think more slowly and critically (i.e., looking at diagrams for a word problem) and when you can think quickly with pattern recognition (i.e., taking a derivative).

Evidence-based principles for how we learn and retain information for the long-term

Research shows that we retain information the best when we have to make an effort—whether to recall it, verbally explain it to someone else, or apply it to practice problems. Listening to a teacher’s lecture or passively reading yields very low retention (5-10% of information). So, challenge yourself as much as possible to attempt homework without consulting the book or looking up an answer online right away. Explain a new concept to a parent or friend. And, each time we re-learn a concept, we cement the information a little deeper in our minds, so don’t fear those frustrating moments of “I learned this before but now I’ve forgotten it.” Each time you re-learn, the material will come back quicker and remain accessible a bit longer.*

I look forward to helping you think about your thinking and become a more efficient, retentive learner!



*Reference: See Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning if you’re interested in a reading more!

Image Credits:

  1. Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/metacognition-gift-that-keeps-giving-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers
  2. What Do Teachers Need to Known about Neuroscience and Brain-Based Learning, http://www.wiziq.com/teachblog/what-do-teachers-need-to-know-about-neuroscience-and-brain-based-learning/


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Interested in other blog posts on study skills?

Reading at all Speeds: 4 Types of Reading and When to Use Them

5 Ways to Reduce Procrastination While Studying or Paper Writing

Here Are the Best Time Management Tips for Test Prep



Tags: study skills, psychology