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

OCTOBER 27, 2014
Daniel Brown, PharmD
1. Commit to Improving as a Learner
People are capable of improving how well they learn. The ability to learn is not a fixed trait that you inherit at birth and are stuck with for the rest of your life. Learning skills can be cultivated. Carol S. Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, has conducted fascinating research into the effect of mind-set on how one approaches learning. According to Dweck, some people have a fixed mind-set, meaning that they think their ability to learn is rigid, while others have a growth mind-set, based on the belief that learning is a process that can be improved.

The impact of mind-set on learning habits is profound. Some fixed-mind -set people perceive that their capacity to learn is limited, believing that they are simply not “smart enough” to understand certain concepts. They tend to become overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness when faced with difficult academic challenges, and give up. Others with a fixed mind-set consider themselves to be advanced learners who are smart enough to master anything. They tend to blame others when their academic performance falls short of expectations. Either type of fixed mind-set leads to a pervasive attitude that there is no point in working harder or trying something different.

In contrast, growth mind-set people see their learning capacity as an ongoing work in progress. They believe that with sufficient effort and the right strategy, they can learn almost anything. Attitude matters. Set your mind firmly on a path of growth. Think of learning as a skill that can be developed, not a fixed trait. Take responsibility for how well you learn, and if there is room for improvement do something about it. (For further explanation, see Ambrose 200-201; Bain 101-111; Brown 92, 179-183.)

2. Strive for Deeper Learning
Learning that results in a superficial understanding of concepts and the transient, short-term memorization of facts has been described as surface learning. Even if sufficient to pass an exam, surface learning is not likely to result in long-term retention or the ability to relate concepts to a variety of situations. In other words, it is of little educational or professional value. Deep learning involves greater depth of understanding and results from advanced levels of cognition, such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Surface learning enables you to recognize dots; deep learning enables you to connect the dots.

The depth of learning is dependent on the extent of critical thinking that goes into it. Deep learners don’t limit themselves to memorizing facts about drugs and diseases; they seek to understand the mechanisms behind the facts. For example, knowing that “guidelines” recommend ACE inhibitors for the treatment of diabetes with hypertension is surface learning. Deep learners go on to ask why, how, and what if. Why do the guidelines make that recommendation? How does the pathophysiology of diabetes and hypertension match up with the pharmacology of ACE inhibitors? How do ACE inhibitors compare with other antihypertensive drugs? What if a patient has renal failure; does that matter? Don’t just memorize treatment guidelines! Seek to understand the evidence and rationale upon which the guidelines are based. Gourmet chefs do not rely on cookbooks.

Surface learning might be sufficient to get by academically, but deep learning is transformational and life-changing. Take advantage of opportunities to deepen your learning by engaging in hands-on activities. Don’t just go through the motions to complete assignments or projects that are intended to stimulate you to think critically. Critical thinking involves carefully examining the information you have to work with, evaluating that information to determine how relevant and valid it is, and then forming conclusions or making decisions based on that information. Health care practitioners must think critically as they make clinical decisions on behalf of a patient. It is a vital skill that every good pharmacist should have and every pharmacy student should develop. (For further explanation, see Ambrose 118-119; Bain 155-157.)

3. Identify What You Need to Learn
Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, includes the sage advice, “Begin with the end in mind.”7 In other words, to achieve a goal, you must first understand what the goal is, establishing a target. In education, goals that define what students should learn are termed “learning outcomes.” Learning outcomes (sometimes designated learning objectives) define exactly what students should be able to do as a result of the learning that is expected. They generally begin with an action verb followed by conditions and qualifiers, such as, “Calculate the creatinine clearance of an adult patient using the Cockcroft-Gault equation.” Instructors should provide a set of broad, course-level learning outcomes, as well as more detailed learning outcomes specific to each lesson.

Carefully review the learning outcomes that are made available to you from an instructor. You can also gain perspective on learning “targets” by analyzing assignment instructions, criteria in grading rubrics, study guides, exam reviews, or any other sources that provide insight into the instructor’s expectations. For further clarification, ask for some guidance from the instructor about what to focus on in your studying. If all else fails, try to set learning priorities of your own. Don’t set out on a journey of learning until you have a reasonably clear picture of the destination. If you know where you are going, your brain will function like a GPS device to keep you on track. (For further explanation, see Nilson 17-18.)

4. Stop Cramming! Spread Out and Mix Up Your Studying
The typical pattern of intense, condensed cramming of material shortly before an exam is unequivocally the most detrimental study pattern plaguing pharmacy students today. If this applies to you, take heed—there is nothing you can do to enhance your learning more dramatically than breaking the bulimic pattern of cramming for exams. Cramming not only restricts you to surface learning, but it generates undue stress—the last thing a pharmacy student needs. Studying is more effective, more efficient, and less stressful when it involves learning smaller chunks of material over longer periods of time. It might feel as though you are learning more when you study material at one time en masse, but evidence suggests that digesting it in smaller bites is better.

Researchers have also found that learning is enhanced when you mix up and alternate study topics. It is better to study 1 subject for a while, switch to another, and then go back to the original topic, than to study the same material the entire time. The learning capacity of the brain improves when the focus of attention switches from time to time. It requires greater effort to spread out and vary studying, but the effort is worth it. Remember—learning is a complex process of construction that depends on repetition and reinforcement. (For further explanation, see Bain 243-245; Brown 31-32, 46-52, 203-207.)

5. Read for Understanding, Not for Speed
Reading to learn is distinctly different from reading a novel or a newspaper. Reading to learn requires a strategy that incorporates thinking about what you are reading as you read it. One method is SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. Before you start reading, survey the material by flipping through the pages. Make note of the introduction, conclusion, headings, tables, and figures, just to get a feel for the content. As you survey the material, question what you should be learning from each section of the reading. This provides an idea of what to look for. As you read, search for the take-home points. Avoid reading too rapidly. Be methodical and take your time. Stop periodically to recite (or write) the highlights of what you’ve read in your own words. Don’t just repeat or copy verbatim from the text. Lastly, try to review (recall) the key points without referring to the text. Studies have shown that reading followed by rereading produces less learning than stopping periodically as you read to paraphrase and recall key points. Reading to learn has elements of effective studying deeply ingrained in the process. That’s why it works. (For further explanation, see Ambrose 128; Bain 232-241; Brown 201-203; Nilson 30-31.)