We spend decades in schools. 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 3-7 years of residency, specialized training, and a continuous recertification for our credentials every 10 years. We’re life-long learners, and we’re okay with that. Our teachers tell us that “half of what we’re learning now will be obsolete in 20 years.” We just don’t know which half.
And so we study. A lot. Medical school not only provides you ample chances to learn, but also helps you develop the skills to understand how you best study. Whether you’re a class goer, you read notes, you use flash cards or answer test questions, everyone has their own unique way of learning.
One of the best strategies I’ve used for medical school and preparing for Step 1 I actually learned from kindergarten. Let me explain. My roommate used to be a kindergarten teacher. From decorations streaming all over the wall, with graphs and charts and colors, to mnemonics, and chants and cheers, her students were learning an incredible amount of material. And they were having fun. When I asked her what her approach was, she said that this was the JOY factor. Kids learn better when they are emotionally invested and when they are having fun. There’s actually an entire discipline of education research focused on brain-based learning, and the neuroscience of learning. Emotions allow us to accelerate or attenuate what we learn. It’s probably why so many pre meds who get frustrated with orgo drop out of the pursuit of medicine.
But can this apply to older students? Even adults? When I taught 12th grade students, I tried a similar approach. Similar colors, similar mnemonics, even some chants and cheers. And the students, even when they acted like they didn’t enjoy it, learned a lot. Their test scores went up, and I could hear students muttering under their breath these mnemonics while taking their tests.
And what about the adult brain? I’m experimenting with my own test-taking strategy by using a similar JOY factor with our course material. Whether it’s drawings, rhymes, using different colors, my understanding of some of the minutiae has vastly improved this year. It’s almost a safety net for remembering all of the small pathophysiological mechanisms, the etiologies and the epidemiology for various diseases.
This is why programs like Sketchy Medicine and Picmonic are pretty popular with medical students. They help create fun, engaging and positive connections between the content and often silly drawings.
The only thing that seems to improve learning more so than this JOY factor is the real-world application. That’s why our attending physicians often see these programs as trivial. Because they don’t take learning to a higher level. It’s easy to use pictures to remember small details of a disease, but it doesn’t help understand how the disease affects a patient’s quality of life.
Next year, the patients and the clerkship experience will replace my chants, raps, and colors. But until then, I’ll keep coloring.