Are you wrong about learning?

Earlier this year Wired magazine interviewed psychology professor Robert Bjork, the director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab. The article highlighted a few widely held beliefs about learning that are just plain wrong.

Here’s run down of four major misconceptions put in the context of meducation:

1. Learn one thing at a time

This is wrong.

For instance, don’t spend two hours reading chapters and articles on pulmonary embolism.

Instead, mix it up. This makes learning more challenging, more interesting, more active, and helps interleave related facts and skills.

Don’t rely on one way of learning. Find a good summary article, test yourself on some ECGs, check out some radiology images, do past exam questions, do some case-based Q&As (such as Not just a PE…, Puzzling out the PERC Rule, Dealing with D-Dimer Debacles, or Bedside Echo in Pulmonary Embolism), or spend time vividly visualising your approach to how PE patients present in the real world or the quiz.

Also integrate learning about the relevant differentials, so that you are prepared for what will happen in the exam and in the real world.

Make sure that the knowledge or skills that you interleave are in some way related.

2. Study in one place

This is wrong too.

Were you told as a youngster to find a nice quiet place to study and stay there? Turns out that’s fine if you just want to recall information while sitting at your desk.

Learning and studying in more varied settings makes recall and retrieval of information in different settings easier. This is especially important when preparing for short cases and vivas — practice in a real world setting, wearing the clothes and using the equipment you are going to wear on the day.

3. Don’t study just before the quiz

Yep, this is also wrong. However, there are caveats.

It is of course good to be prepared. Equally important is being well rested before an exam.

Nevertheless, the more recently you have accessed a memory the more easily it will be retrieved subsequently. Importantly, this should be an active process — retrieve the fact from your memory, then check if it’s right. This works particularly well if the active attempts at retrieval are spaced over time, as I’ve discussed in detail in Learning by Spaced Repetition.

4. Take notes during lectures

Guess what… It’s wrong.

More important than taking obsessive notes during a talk, which distracts you from listening, is to write notes after the talk.

You are more likely to form easy to retrieve long term memories by writing notes from recall. In this age of asynchronous learning, this is even easier as we can rewind a podcast or Free Emergency Talks to check we haven’t missed anything.

Some final quotations from Robert Bjork:

“People tend to think that learning is building up something in your memory and that forgetting is losing the things you built. But in some respects the opposite is true.”

“Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess.”


  1. says

    Great post mate!
    Totally agree with the “don’t study one thing at a time” idea.
    I’m definitely more productive if I have two or three different topics or study modalities that I can flit between if I get bored (typical ED doctor!)
    I get study fatigue much quicker if I am just reading chapter after chapter of Tintinalli.
    So much better to read a single chapter (or even just a paragraph!), test myself with some questions and then locate some educational podcasts or videos to consolidate it all.
    Also, I find that changing to a different topic resets the “boredom clock” and I can study for longer without losing interest.
    I’m definitely a believer in the power of spaced repetition and the effects of state-dependent learning (so much easier to remember stuff in the environment you learned it in) and I haven’t taken notes in a lecture since medical school (I miss all the important points and remember less if I do).
    Will try to keep all these strategies in mind as I prepare for the big FACEM quiz…


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