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Shotgun-Sequencing Learning

Throughout the first half of medical school, my learning style has changed tremendously. When I compare how I studied in undergrad to how I study now, I am quite surprised with the changes.

Before medical school, I would go over each concept taught in class thoroughly. I would read over the material slowly until I understood it and would take detailed notes. This proved to be effective as the bulk of my courses were in the physical sciences (physics and chem) and maths. I would only go through the materials once or twice and be prepared for the test.

However in medical school information is presented in a different way and with that  my studying habits have also undergone a radical paradigm shift. The main difference I find is the volume of knowledge you have to cover. For each disease or medical condition, you have to understand the physiology, pathology, pathophysiology basic sciences, clinical signs, treatments, prognosis and epidemiology. And if you decide to use my old method of thorough meticulous notes, you would never be able to cover all the material.

Furthermore, there is a lot of uncertainty in medicine. The answers aren’t always clear cut like they were in physics. There are tons of questions where there are no good answers.

To handle all this information, I have taken a “shotgun-sequencing” approach to learning. I find this metaphor extremely relevant to the difference between my old way of learning and my new way. Much like the actual shotgun sequencing of DNA, instead of going through a piece of DNA sequentially and thoroughly (which is a slow approach), you learn in random snippets and fragments which is assembled together afterward.

Using this shotgun approach, I can now cover more material in less time. However, to maintain the same precision and thoroughness of knowledge as before, I have to cover the material several more times to make sure I really know my stuff. I find that magic number to be somewhere near five to six times. Because of the time needed to go over the material several more times, there is not really a speed advantage. I still spend about the same amount of time studying.

The true advantage of this learning approach, at least for medicine, is the integrative nature. Medicine is all about making connections between the basic sciences and clinical practices. It’s about understanding the many interactions between the body, disease and treatment. After going over the materials 5-6x, knowledge begins to integrate in a very strong and cohesive way. Instead of a linear mode of thinking, you start to understand things laterally, forwards and backwards.

For example: Not only do you understand the causes of syncope (fainting), but you can also come up with a differential diagnosis of what causes it, what drugs can treat it, what other symptoms would be present. By shotgunning your learning, you build a complex web of knowledge that is characteristic of medicine.

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  1. TheMemoirist
    TheMemoirist February 22, 2009

    I haven’t really adjusted my learning style a whole lot in school thus far–i still tend to read the assignments start to finish then do a bunch of practice problems, and that has worked fairly well for me, but i’m very curious about your “shotgun sequencing” method of studying. I might just give this a shot in the future.

  2. Robocop
    Robocop February 23, 2009

    This is a retarded idea. Are you serious? Textbooks are organized for a reason. Why don’t we just jumble all the chapters in random order, that way we can learn about transcription before we know what DNA is!

  3. medaholic
    medaholic February 26, 2009

    I guess I should be more clear about what I mean by shot-gun method. The analogy isn’t that accurate because I’m not actually randomly reading snippets out of order and in a disorganized fashion. Say, instead of reading a chapter slowly, taking extensive notes in each section until you understand everything, I would first read the headings and summary to form an outline and skeleton. I would then fill in this skeleton through a first reading. I would then switch to class notes to fill in gaps of knowledge from my first reading. I might add in a different textbook or source to find out more about the topic. I would then try to approach it from a clinical understanding, knowing what symptoms and signs to look for, what treatments should I use. Usually, through our small group learning, or clinical exposure, we gain another perspective. So instead of going through one textbook/lecture carefully and over and over again, I have chosen to use multiple sources with different perspectives to learn.

    So yes, we should learn what DNA is before transcription. Textbooks are organized for a reason. However, learning medicine is not so straightforward as figuring out the steps of transcription. And I’ve found that using a different approach other than the deduction / logical sequence thinking used in physical sciences / math has proven to be better for me.

  4. Malina
    Malina March 2, 2009

    Every time i come here I am not dissapointed, nice post

  5. […] source. You will have a hard time learning from multiple texts, I remember I made a post about learning from multiple sources, while I still believe that, it’s also important to have one resource you are familiar with. […]

  6. Nicole
    Nicole December 25, 2010

    Great post

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