How the first weeks of medical school are re-teaching me how to learn, fail, and stay human.
Learning to Learn.
Medical students learn approximately 13,000 words in the first year alone, according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. People often compare learning in medical school to drinking out of a fire hydrant; it’s impossible to retain every detail about Winged Scapula, Xerophthalmia, and Zellweger Syndrome.
Recognizing the impossible nature of this task, our professors actively coach us in the process of learning to learn — meta-learning. At Alpert, we even have a “learning specialist,” hired to consult with students on the best ways to learn.
This is the first time in my life I have been actively taught how to learn, and so far, it’s been both fun and challenging to figure out what works. I’ve tried out learning strategies ranging from the basic (PowerPoint lecture and textbooks) to the complex (blank color-in packets and spaced repetition flashcards). Lecture didn’t work. Coloring did. Night studying didn’t work. Mornings did.
On top of the hundreds of medical terms and study-techniques I’ve learned, I have also been learning how to be more efficient, focused, organized, and disciplined.
The learning process is constantly iterating and changing. Learning starts with the medical material, but it follows me everywhere I go.
Learning to Fail.
As much as we are learning how to learn, we are also being taught (and encouraged) to fail.
Unfortunately, for me, lessons stick best when I get things wrong. When I take practice test, I remember the wrongs, not the rights. If I get an answer wrong in our small group classes, I don’t forget the answer again.
One time, our professor called on me to demonstrate an ultrasound technique, and I was so nervous, I forgot to do the first step of any interaction: introduce myself to the patient. This is a bit confusing- why would you think the patient was male if the patient was female? Can leave as is now or maybe expand a bit more!
And there are plenty of opportunities to get things wrong. Medicine has ritualized this in a practice called “pimping” — when our superiors rapidly fire questions at us hoping to hit something we don’t know.
In our medical education, we learn to find the sweet spot between constantly failing and constantly succeeding, where we learn the best.
One of the most difficult parts of medical school is this process of failing in order to learn more. As medical students, we are used to being better than average. Failing is uncomfortable, but also necessary for learning – something I’m just starting to accept.
Learning to stay human.
In medical school, learning extends far beyond the walls of the lecture halls and libraries. Being a good physician is much more than spitting out facts and correctly diagnosing a patient’s condition. Medicine is ultimately an interaction between people.
Becoming a good physician is built on a foundation of being a whole person.
I’m in the process of learning how to disentangle medicine and life. Medicine consumes a vast majority of my waking day and many of my friends are medical students, which makes it hard to have real conversations outside of the realm of medicine. It’s difficult to not get stressed out before exams when everyone is focused on the same thing. It can be tough to not feel guilty for using my brain something that has nothing to do at all with medical school.
Most of all, it’s hard to zoom out and reflect on the big picture. Why am I here? What motivates me? What is important? For this reason, one of the most important things to do is reflect and not forget how quickly all this learning is happening.
We are learning to learn. Learning to fail. But most importantly, we are learning about ourselves.
Jeff is a first-year medical student (MD’21) who loves good conversation, trying new things, and thinking too much.