Learn by experience (not just lecture!)

I came to medical school ready and excited to learn.  I felt that the knowledge was right there for the taking – I just had to go to lecture, listen, read, and the learning would happen.  However, while slogging through the dense biochemistry pathways and memorizing the names of all the muscles in the hand, I began to get the sense that there was more to learning than effort and following the rules.  It was not until I was well into my clinical rotations that I was able to truly appreciate that much of learning happens through experience.  I don’t remember the Raf/MEK pathway, but I can tell you the possible reasons why a 24 year old man may have liver failure – I had to figure out the answer to that question in order to help a patient.

As I’ve gone through residency and fellowship training, the notion that you have to create an experience in order to learn something has become more and more entrenched in my thinking about education.  That sounds nice, but how does one actually create these experiences?

Learning from patients is one way, but that’s hard to do before third year, and even then you need to know much more than a patient can teach you.  Asking yourself questions to stimulate yourself to learn is another way, but that can be difficult, especially when you’re tired and stressed.  Ultimately, we rely on our teachers to help us create these experiences, but, as you all know, a good teacher is hard to find.

Anatomy is a particularly challenging subject.  The amount of memorization is immense, the pressure is high, and the relevance of the material is often obscure.  The anatomy lab is designed to help, but the environment, time pressure and dynamic between students often presents barriers to creating an effective learning process.  It was not until I took one of the living anatome classes that I understood that there was a better way to teach anatomy. By teaching through movement, living anatome enables you to fully experience the subject in a number of different ways.  Intellectually, it gives you the relevance for each muscle that you learn so that your brain has the incentive to remember it (other than the “it will be on the test” incentive).  However, it also supplements your learning with a physical component that further solidifies your knowledge.  If you don’t think that the latter aspect is important, think about which of the following two methods would be best if you wanted to learn how to place an IV – watching a video, or performing the procedure while being supervised by an instructor.  Living anatome is not only a unique opportunity to learn, but a great example of a program our medical schools can incorporate into the school curricula in order to rise up and meet the needs of today’s student doctors.

About the author

Eli Miloslavsky, MD is a first-year Rheumatology fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital In Boston, MA. He is passionate about medical education and has been involved in teaching medical students since 2004.

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