Studying Effectively, Part 1: Chunk the Chunks

Three months into 2022, and I have yet to write here because of how busy it has been, despite all the thoughts running through my head. At the start of the new year, I was in a reading-intensive molecular pathology rotation, which was followed by a labor-intensive autopsy rotation. And then, unfortunately, I finally succumbed to COVID-19 when I was supposed to do a clinical rotation, and even now my cough has not abated. This cycle’s residency match season has also left me with so many insights and ideas that I wish I can share. Maybe another time!

Now that we are at the tail-end of a busy but educational cytogenetics rotation and are about to foray into the real world of pathology, of grossing and introductory report writing for microscopic findings, I find myself once again overwhelmed by the amount of information I need to learn. The anxiety is climbing now that our in-training exam draws ever near, even if there are very few expectations from me as a PGY-1.

During my autopsy rotation, what I found helpful in studying was carving out time daily, even on weekends, to study something related to my current rotation and something on a different, but related, subject. For example, for a month, I was going through chapters of an autopsy textbook while at the same time going through a Robbins pathology review book. I tried to tackle different organ systems to broaden my scope.

Unfortunately, if you ask me to remember what I studied then, I can probably teach you very little. My mental retention is not the greatest, not really because I have poor memory, but because of inadequate study techniques and discipline. (I think my post-baby brain is just different, and then there’s also the post-COVID brain daze.)

And then I remembered that when I was on maternity leave and desperately trying to get through the big Robbins textbook, in between breastfeeding my daughter and changing her diaper and doing so many other things, that I sped-read my way through a free online course on the platform Coursera.

It’s called Learning to Learn—and wow, I told myself back then that I would read it again when I return to residency and incorporate some of the science-backed study hacks that they’ve taught. I encourage you to review the material yourself, as I will only be presenting the key points that I have learned from the program.

Modes of thinking

A diffuse mode of thinking is a network constructed from related concepts that you’re previously understood that’s always running in the background, while a focused mode is when you’re trying to learn something new.

Learning well involves being able to alternate between diffuse and focused modes of thinking. My understanding is that the diffuse mode of thinking can be improved over time by doing focused modes everyday.

This is why cramming doesn’t work. Cramming doesn’t build a good base, a good background. Instead, it dumps all concepts and ideas into your brain, disorganized and in a jumble.

Learning new things

When a subject feels overwhelming, it is helpful to break it down into learning chunks. In this course, chunks were defined as compact packages of information that includes facts, concepts, and context created by focused practice and repetition. Chunks are the building blocks of later and advanced studies and helps the brain become more efficient by organizing data.

Simplistically, to learn chunks, you need to do three things. First, focus. Get rid of all distractions. Identify the basic concepts that you need to understand, and only then add some details that can improve your understanding. Finally, try applying it in context. When does this concept, idea, or mental tool work, and when does it not? In my scope of study, I suppose this will mean talking about diagnostic differentials and rule exceptions.

In practice

The modes of thinking and the method of “chunking” information seems so obvious, now that we stop to think about it. But how do we live this in practice?

What I personally do is set aside time to study (by reading) everyday. Thankfully, the text I read flows quite well, so I can read it rather quickly. Once I see a topic that I can chunk, I pause and reread concepts closely related, including facts to memorize, and I try to stick them together. Throughout the succeeding days, I try to recall the chunks on my own, enabling me to solidify my understanding and to commit a lot more to memory. (When I have time, I do check what I may have missed.)

Hopefully, over time, I can chunk the chunks together.

In the next part of this series, we talk about what the course has taught about procrastination, and how we can avoid (or beat!) it.


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

See also

Dr. Jade Marie Tomaszewski is a pathologist-in-training at McGill University, where she also did her degree in MSc Pathology. She obtained her medical degree (MD) from the University of the Philippines, after completing a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In her (little) spare time, she enjoys spending time with family, curling up with a book and a large mug of tea, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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