Learning to Become a Better Learner: 10 Tips for Success in Pharmacy School and Beyond

OCTOBER 27, 2014
Daniel Brown, PharmD
Introduction: The Need for Better Learning Strategies
Two recent articles published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education provide meaningful insight into the daunting academic challenges facing the typical pharmacy student.1,2 Persky et al suggested that some pharmacy students need to improve their learning startegies because they often rely on ones that are either ineffective or inefficient.1 Zorek et al introduced the term “bulimic learning” as a descriptor for the binge-purge pattern of intensely cramming as much information as possible into one’s short-term memory immediately prior to an exam, followed by the regurgitation of that knowledge during the exam.2

The result is an endless cycle of frenetic, late-night studying that produces much stress and not much long-term learning. The authors pointed out that the vast amount of information that pharmacy students are expected to learn pushes many of them into bingeing and purging from exam to exam. It’s a valid observation, one that pharmacy faculty need to carefully consider when developing courses and designing curricula. Zorek et al suggested that bulimic learning is an unhealthy educational practice that undermines a student’s professional growth.2 There has to be a better way.

This article is written for students of higher education, whether undergraduate, graduate, or professional. Although it is slanted toward prepharmacy and pharmacy students, the principles can be applied to students of any discipline. It is not designed to be an exhaustive treatise on educational theory or cognitive psychology, but the content is based on validated, empiric studies that have been reported in 4 well-researched books on the dynamics of learning, all of which were published since 2010.3-6 The intent is to distill the information into concise explanations that are simple, straightforward, and easily applied. But before delving into specific learning strategies, one must first understand a few fundamental concepts about learning.

Learning is an active process of construction that results from the formation and reinforcement of neuronal connections in the brain. It is predicated on thinking. No one can transmit or transfer knowledge into your brain. As you learn, the brain searches its neural networks to relate what is being learned to that which has already been learned, thus integrating the old and the new. The more extensive and integrated the neural pathways are, the easier it is to recall information and utilize it in the future.

Learning occurs at multiple levels of cognition, the most basic being to remember facts. Knowledge isn’t of much value if you can’t recall the information, but you also need a functional understanding of what it means. Interestingly, studies have shown that having a good understanding of a concept makes it easier to recall. If you understand the mechanisms by which angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors cause side effects, for example, you will find it easier to remember those side effects.

Pharmacy students are exposed to a wide variety of teaching styles, course designs, curricular programs, and instructor personalities. It is up to you to learn as much as you can, regardless of the academic circumstances. Be careful not to blame faculty for your academic shortcomings. They are responsible for their teaching. You are responsible for your learning.

The rapidly expanding fields of pharmacy and medicine necessitate that pharmacists continue learning for as long as they remain in practice, lest they gradually become incompetent practitioners. Upon graduation, you will be on your own, fully dependent on the learning skills that you are establishing as a student. Now is a good time to sharpen those skills and become a master learner. The following 10 strategies are designed to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency with which you learn. They apply equally well in academic and nonacademic settings, providing skills sufficient to support a lifetime of learning.