The Basic Circuit of Learning: A simplified look at learning in med school

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Learning in Med School 101 Video Series Part 2

In this video series, “Learning in Med School 101,” we break down some key concepts about learning medical school, including skills, strategies, and techniques we share with medical students (and those in related medical fields). 

Learning Concepts in Med School

In this video, we introduce some basic structural learning concepts including the basic circuit of learning. Now, these can be applied at all levels, but, as always, we’re looking at it through the lens of medical learning. We dig into five concepts: 

  • Basic Circuit of Learning
  • Curve of Forgetting
  • Cramming Window
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Curve of Learning

The basic circuit of learning is a framework for how the learning brain works. For this, the first thing we want to do is think about encoding, or the process of entering information into memory. After encoding comes storage, which is the retention of information over time. Step three in this process is retrieval, or the ability to access material from memory.

In the curve of forgetting, takes into account that we aren’t designed to remember, we are actually designed to forget information! And this forgetting can happen fast.

Then, we have the cramming window. Typically, we can usually cram a limited amount of information into our brains. But this doesn’t work for long-term storage, the curve of forgetting comes into play, and we can only keep the information for a couple of days when it’s stored this way. 

But with retrieval practice (verses review, which is a low-yield, passive and inefficient way to study), the learner forces themselves to try and recall the material they’ve already studied. This practice might not feel great – at times you may be trying to blindly recall something you’ve learned, but it is a high-yield and efficient way to retain the things you learn.

Students can offset the curve of forgetting by activating the curve of learning. This can look like actively revisiting the material, again through retrieval practice. 

 Interested in more med school study strategies and learning theories? Check out the STATMed Class.

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Welcome to “Learning in Med School 101,” where I briefly talk about some key learning concepts relevant to any medical student. Some of these come from longer talks I’ve given, and some are new. 

Here, I’m gonna talk about some real, basic structural concepts that are all interrelated to studying and learning. This applies to learning at all levels, but we’re thinking about this through the filter of learning in medical school, which I think is especially important because no one teaches smart adult learners how learning actually works. 

So let’s just quickly talk about five interrelated basic concepts. By having an understanding of this basic vocabulary and these basic processes, we can start to understand how our own learning works. And if you’re a med student, I would think you would want to understand and optimize your own learning. 

So let’s start by talking about what I call the “basic circuit of learning,” which is a simple framework we can all use to start thinking about how the learning brain works. So the first thing we wanna think about is the act of encoding. This is a great little vocabulary word. This is the process of entering information into memory. 

Then the second thing is storage. It’s the retention of information over time. This involves consolidation, reorganization, and stabilization. You might hear those words come up as well. 

And then the third piece is this act of retrieval. And this is the ability to access material from memory. So if we really boil it down, basic circuit of learning is encoding, putting it in storage, making it stick and stay and be organized. And then retrieval, being able to pull it out with random access in the future. So look at this. 

This is a horrifying thing called the “Curve of Forgetting”. We are designed not to remember stuff, guys. We are designed to forget. So look, if I learn something, whatever that might be, imagine this is a lecture or something. So just say like my max learning of that lecture, my initial learning experience, I immediately start to forget it. This is happening fast. Maybe within days, probably more like within hours, we’re losing what we learned. This is like the Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting. It’s horrifying.

 And then I got this thing I call the “Cramming Window”. So we go up here, we have our initial learning event. That cramming window lasts a brief period of time, but then it starts to drop off. The forgetting curve illustrates why cramming works in that short-term window, maybe two days, maybe a day, you know, 24, 48 hours, I don’t know. It’s gonna be different for different people. But does not work over time and volume. We can usually cram a limited amount of information that will last one or two days. And only to then lose that information over the following days and weeks. We can all think back to like undergrad courses, maybe Master’s courses where that stuff really worked, where we really drilled it in. Drill, drill, drill. It’s there, we regurgitate, then it’s gone. This is why. 

So the speed-volume-density equation of med school and boards study, it overloads the viability of cramming. So I’m gonna start laying some groundwork as well as how we can get away from this. But this is one of the key concepts that I really want you guys to all understand. 

Review versus retrieval practice. Okay? Revisiting to learn. So review is a common word we all use when it comes to learning and studying. So I define review as anytime a learner re-experiences material they’ve already studied when it is in front of their face, okay? This often happens in the form of re-reading or skimming or looking over. People say they do this all the time. It is a very low-yield game. It’s passive, it’s inefficient, and it creates a false sense of mastery. This should be the thing you’re most scared of. It’s this idea of a false sense of mastery. Reviewing, looking over stuff, does very little to consolidate memories. And it’s doing nothing to facilitate the act of retrieval. Remember we talked about encode, storage, retrieval. We wanna get away from reviewing. 

The flip side of this is called retrieval practice. Anytime the learner forces themselves to try and recall material they’ve already studied. So after that initial learning experience, we want to engage in what’s called “retrieval practice”. The fact that we’re not teaching this to kids at the third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade, 12th grade level, all the way through college, is a huge failure on our part. This is one of those things where the literature is just stone cold on how this all works. So this requires a student to struggle to blindly recall information. The material that you’ve already studied. It makes the learner feel bad. You’re gonna feel bad, like I’m trying to recall this stuff and I can’t remember it. So the learner is less inclined to engage in this activity even though it’s superior. It can be called “self-testing.” 

It can be called the “testing effect.” You don’t need practice questions or practice tests to engage in retrieval practice. So we want to activate the curve of learning to offset that horrific forgetting curve we saw earlier. Here’s that initial learning experience, right? And I showed you how it starts to drop off. How do we offset that? Well, every time you come back and re-experience it, ideally through some sort of retrieval practice, you’re gonna spike that memory back up. But what’s gonna happen, it’s gonna drop off again. You revisit again, spike it back up. It’s gonna drop off. But that now, I mean it’s getting less extreme. So we’re revisiting as time progresses, we’re revisiting, and now we’re seeing that spike drop off less and less. Revisitation should come in the form of retrieval practice and avoid passive review. 

So, there you have it. Five basic learning principles for learning in medical school. I hope this gives you some sort of framework for how learning works broadly. And if you’re in med school, or in a related field, you can start to reflect on how you study and maybe where things need to be tweaked or overhauled or tightened. Feel free to explore our content for more on these and related topics. Thanks for watching.

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