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Surprise! You have classes in graduate school. And if your experience is similar to mine, then the educational methods are poor. Your professors may understand their content, but probably not how to convey it. The learning materials are an overpriced textbook and journal articles filled with technical jargon. The learning objectives are unclear, and expectations are vague. Overall, you feel like you have been thrown into the deep end and told to swim. And there is some truth to this; graduate school is a lot about learning to swim in deep water. Fortunately, there are easier, more efficient ways to learn.
This article will present a simplified theoretical framework for learning new information followed by some practical applications to help make studying more effective. While I will cite relevant research when possible, my goal is to provide useful insights based on personal experience. Thus, some ideas may be overly simplified or superficially explained, and I beg the reader’s indulgence in overlooking these shortcomings.
Most importantly, however, the stakes for learning are high.
By the way, my loose familiarity with educational methods has nothing to do with my degree or formal training. Instead it comes from my experiences in medical school, where educational methods are routinely tested on unsuspecting medical students. In fact, Medical Education is now its own field, with numerous schools offering medical education training to medical students and residents alike. There are several reasons for this. First, medical schools represent a highly controlled group of people who are generally similar in socioeconomic status, age, and intelligence. Second, medical students will agree to just about anything they think will help them learn. Most importantly, however, the stakes for learning are high. This might be because we want well-trained doctors, but I think the reality is that medical schools attract the best candidates with high pass-rates on medical licensing exams. Thus, they spend a lot of money to figure out how to train future doctors as efficiently and effectively as possible, and my outlook is largely the product of this process.
The Layman's Theory of Learning
When we talk about learning a new concept, we are talking about arranging discrete pieces of information in such a way that they work together to be useful. In other words, we are building a map of the concept that is simple enough to remember yet complex enough to be useful. The technical term for this is a “schema,” and in my view schemas, not facts, are the most basic unit of useful knowledge. For example, you can know that a plant is poisonous (a fact), but that fact is useless unless you have an idea of what a poison is, how you can be exposed to the poison, and what the consequences of such an exposure are. Knowing a plant is poisonous, therefore, only makes sense because it fits into your schema about poisons.
This example may seem trivial, but it establishes an important idea when it comes to learning, namely that learning new information involves integrating it into an existing informational structure. This stands in contrast to an Enlightenment idea called tabula rasa, or “blank slate”, wherein learners were thought to be empty vessels into which knowledge merely needed to be poured. I often think professors operate this way, droning on about facts and details as if by merely mentioning them the learners will integrate them in a useful way. The reality, however, is that learners come to the table with preconceived notions (schemas) about how things work, and unless instructors provide a more coherent schema for understanding the concept at hand, learners will simply try to fit the new information into their old understanding.
A simple portrayal of this is in the children’s story “Fish is Fish,” wherein a tadpole (who looks like a minnow) makes friends with a minnow in a pond. The tadpole then grows into a frog, travels to the outside world, and then returns to the pond and tells his friend the minnow about all the things he saw. As he explains about cows and chickens and other land animals, the minnow imagines each animal as a fish with the additional relevant traits (e.g. an udder, feathers, a tail). In other words, the minnow has a schema that all animals are like himself (a fish), and thus he fits new information about new animals into his existing schema.
Additionally, not all schemas are created equal. For example, I have a very sophisticated schema about how psychiatric diseases (one of my favorite topics) overlap and are distinct from one another. By contrast, I have a very rudimentary schema about quantum physics, mostly acquired from a horrifyingly incompetent series of physics classes taught to biology majors. The difference in these schemas is in their depth of understanding as measured by: 1) the number of facts (or data points), and 2) and the number of relationships between the facts. In my psychiatric disease schema, I have a lot of factual knowledge about mental illness as well as a good understanding of the connections between the different facts. My quantum physics schema, however, has very few facts, and the facts are barely connected at all.
... A simple portrayal of this is in the children’s story “Fish is Fish,” wherein a tadpole (who looks like a minnow) makes friends with a minnow in a pond.
The point here is that it is not just the number of facts that determines the strength of the schema, but also the connections between facts. Again, I may be able to list thirteen different poisonous plants, but without the key connecting idea (i.e. that a poison can harm you), these facts do not form a schema of any particular use.
So how do we assess our schemas? By using Bloom’s Taxonomy. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom edited the first edition of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. As with many things, it was a group effort, but nobody wanted to repeat a name that long, so it was subsequently shortened to Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956), which stuck even after a revision in 2001 (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). I should point out that, as with all social science concepts, there is some debate about the correct order of categories or the precise language to be used in the hierarchy. I will not be addressing any of these arguments because my goal is not to validate the Taxonomy, but rather to present a useful, if simplified, view of learning.
So what is the taxonomy? It’s a hierarchical arrangement of skills associated with deeper understanding of a concept/schema. These skills are most often operationalized as questions posed to the learner, and are broken into six discrete categories, as seen in Figure 1 (which was shamelessly taken from Vanderbilt University).
Figure 1: A schematic representing Bloom's Taxonomy, with descriptions of each term and example questions. Credit: Vanderbilt University
So what is the taxonomy? It’s a hierarchical arrangement of skills associated with deeper understanding of a concept/schema.
Using Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can really assess the strength of our schemas. Remembering is merely the ability to recall the points in the schema, while Understanding makes basic connections between the points. Applying is the ability to project the schema onto a novel situation, while Analyzing allows students to decompose individual points into subschemas or integrate new points into an existing schema. Finally, Evaluating allows students to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of connections within a schema, while Creating involves taking unrelated facts or schemas and arranging them to create a new schema. In this way, Bloom’s Taxonomy functions as a powerful tool for assessing comprehension of a new idea or set of ideas.
The Application of Layman's THeory
With the abstract concepts of learning under our belts, let us move into some practical ways to use this theory for learning. My goal will be to present different tips, techniques, and resources that will help you learn material more efficiently. Comments about the effectiveness of particular techniques are largely drawn from a monograph by Dunlosky and colleagues (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013); the text is fairly detailed, but it offers an insightful, research-based approach to evaluating the effectiveness of study methods.
Bloom’s Taxonomy begins with Remembering, and most of the popular study techniques focus on this level. Highlighting, rereading, mnemonics, and summarizing all aim to improve learner recall of concepts and ideas, but their effectiveness and efficiency are both fairly low. After all, it doesn’t matter how many times you underline “palimpsest”, you still won’t know what it means. The truth is that these methods simply do not engage the learner sufficiently to be effective, and often result in only transient improvements in recall.
Instead, I suggest de-emphasizing Remembering and focusing more on Understanding. Don’t just try to recall facts – actively try to fit them into a schema. Even if your schema is wrong, attempting to explain facts in the context of other facts will help you uncover the relationships between the details, and perhaps even identify gaps in knowledge. Dunlosky et al. refer to this as “Elaborative Interrogation” and “Self-Explanation”, which they rate as moderately effective (largely because there isn’t enough to data to fully validate them).
Although this idea was first introduced in the 1930s, the development of personal computers allowed algorithms to iteratively identify the optimum intervals between repetitions.
If you do have to remember facts (e.g. the gene translocations in specific cancers, or Planck’s constant and how it works), the best method you can use is spaced repetition (Baddeley, 1998). The idea is simple: the more times you see a concept, the more you are likely to remember it. Additionally, if you gradually increase the time between repetitions, the more likely you are to convert a concept from short-term memory to long-term memory. Although this idea was first introduced in the 1930s, the development of personal computers allowed algorithms to iteratively identify the optimum intervals between repetitions. Spaced repetition is most often operationalized as flashcards, and fortunately there are a bevy of flashcard websites and software programs, like Quizlet and Anki, to choose from. Most of the differences between these programs are cosmetic, so just pick the one that seems most intuitive to you.
In order to move into Applying or Analyzing, we need to start testing our schema against reality. One way to do this is by teaching others on the basis of your schema. While there is a much more formal concept here first developed by Jean-Pol Martin, I’m referring to the most basic level of the idea, that if you can explain your schema to another person, you can explain it to yourself. In medicine we call this “see one, do one, teach one,” and I can tell you that, having seen one neurosurgery, I am ready to remove brain cancer.
All kidding aside, teaching is one of the best ways to help you understand your own schema. Additionally, exposing your schemas to the light of day is helpful because it allows others to offer criticisms that may strengthen your case or correct misunderstandings. If you’re explaining a concept to a classmate, and that classmate corrects an error in your schema, your understanding may improve as well as your chances of getting the right answer on the test. Of course, your feelings may be hurt by being wrong, but better to be wrong in low-pressure situations (homework, class discussions, team learnings etc.) than to carry your flawed schema all the way to the exam.
The other method for Applying and Analyzing is practice testing, which Dunlosky et al. rate as one of the most effective methods for learning. This is exactly what it sounds like: testing your knowledge through practice problems or questions. You can do the sample problems in the textbook, or work through question banks, or even ask yourself questions about the material using the keywords from the Taxonomy. Your questions may not match those on the exam, but you might just quiz yourself about the same ideas.
The last two levels, Evaluating and Creating, require both a depth of knowledge of the relevant topic, but also a breadth of knowledge about other possibly related concepts. The result is that achieving these levels takes much longer than the previous four. Fortunately, few examinations ever test at this level, so unless you’re talking about your dissertation topic, I wouldn’t focus a lot of effort or energy here.
One final comment: you may have heard the phrase “learning styles” bandied about amongst friends or professionals. Simply put, learning style theory suggests that individuals learn best when using their preferred method of study. For example, if you learn by reading diagrams or watching videos, you might be a “visual” learner, and you should focus on learning through this method. Although attractive in presentation, learning style theories have largely been debunked (Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015), and I encourage learners not to think in these terms. The truth is that learning styles are largely fluid across situations and content, and so a technique which works well for one class might work poorly for another.
The Forgotten Element: Self Care
When my classmates and I were studying for our first licensing exam, I noticed a disturbing series of behaviors. Colleagues would set up camp in the library and study for 10-14 hours, just staring at practice questions or watching video lectures. They would wake up early and study well into the night. They would skip meals, avoid exercise, and turn down invitations to spend time with friends. Everyone was trying to pass the exam, and they all felt that the only way to do that was to sacrifice themselves.
Not only was this behavior heartbreaking to watch, it was ultimately self-defeating. How long do you think your brain can remain focused before you run out of cognitive energy? How much information can you learn before you have to stop and consolidate? Do you really think not eating will make you a better student?
In medicine we call this “see one, do one, teach one,” and I can tell you that, having seen one neurosurgery, I am ready to remove brain cancer.
Now, I realize medical school is its own special brand of insanity, but I have met plenty of graduate students who stare at me blankly when I ask them about their personal time. Among so-called “Type A” people (i.e. high personality trait conscientiousness), the urge to work harder when things are not going as planned is enormously strong. But like a muscle being contracted to exertion, studying hard is not always studying better. Take breaks, exercise, spend time with friends. Not only can you use these things as motivation/positive reinforcement, you should trust that by resting now you are increasing the efficiency of subsequent work hours.
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed.). New York: Longman.
Baddeley, A. D. (1998). Human memory : theory and practice (Rev. ed.). Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.
Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives; the classification of educational goals (1st ed.). New York,: Longmans, Green.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychol Sci Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The Scientific Status of Learning Styles Theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271. doi:10.1177/0098628315589505