Navigating the Forest of Learning

Here’s something I wrote for an online Medical Neuroscience course. Some here may find it useful!

Any educational journey into the unfamiliar can seem overwhelming. Our initial survey of the landscape reveals a forest of strange new concepts defined by rather odd jargon, which seem to trigger a reflexive bout of apprehension that can significantly impact our motivation and momentum. Fortunately, we can effectively contend with apprehension by better understanding the tools at our disposal and the experiences we are likely to encounter.

First, think of a new subject of study like a dense, unexplored forest in our mind. We can only get to any new novel clearing (i.e., an understanding) by forging a path in terms of those things that are familiar to us. This is why you may often find new information presented to learners with tools like metaphor. Teachers will introduce a new concept in terms of something they feel you may be familiar with (not unlike I am here and now by attempting to communicate concepts of learning and understanding through a metaphor of a forest.) This is one of the reasons that some learners may appear to “pick up” new concepts at very different speeds (note that this should never be discouraging.) Each learner will approach a subject with clearings and pathways that have been cultivated through very different experiences. This just means that while some paths may take a longer route, the target clearing is reachable for all those willing to forge ahead.

Second, it is important to keep in mind that your journey will see you encounter two major types of learning: Rote learning and meaningful learning (sometimes called relational learning.) Rote learning can be simply described as the memorization of information. It is often considered a necessary step in formal education as it can equip you with rudimentary tools such as the fundamental terminology by which a subject is commonly navigated. Rote does not provide a deeper understanding of a topic, nor does it necessarily foster any meaningful connections with previous knowledge. It is most often achieved through the use of mnemonic devices or memory aids which help the learner recall information without deep association by simply linking it with more concise patterns of letters, numbers, or other relatable content.

These devices may include:

  1. Repetition: This can be defined as the repeating of an action so as to strengthen a potential for effective recall. One specific strategy under this heading is called “spaced repetition” (also known as spaced rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced/expanded retrieval). Spaced repetition is a learning method by which you review learned information at gradually increasing intervals. This method uses the spacing effect (sometimes called distributed practice), which increases the recall of learned information when the learning is spaced out over time as opposed to being crammed into one learning session. For example, you will tend to retain more “memorized” information if you study for an exam for an hour every day for a week leading up to the exam than if you “crammed” and studied 7 hours the night before an exam. This type of learning and studying has been shown to be very effective when you need to retain mass amounts of information that you must be able to recall—for example, math formulas or vocabulary for a new language.

  2. Chunking: Chunking refers to the process of taking individual pieces of information and grouping them into larger, more manageable units. By grouping each data point into a larger whole, you can improve the amount of information you can remember. Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers. For example, a phone number sequence of 4-7-1-1-3-2-4 would be “chunked” into 471-1324.

  3. Fluency Appeals: Things that can be mentally “processed” with greater ease tend to be assigned higher psychological value and thus can be shown to be retained more effectively. Statements that rhyme, be expressed poetically, be stated succinctly, or be associated with a melody can be processed more fluently. A common usage of this appeal can be found with Hebb’s Postulate: " Neurons that fire together wire together."

  4. Acronyms: While I would tend to consider this related to the idea of chunking, acronyms are simply words, names, or phrases that contain the initials of a specific sequence of terms. One of the most famous mnemonic acronyms is Roy. G. Biv. This name contains the first initial from each general hues name found within the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum: R ed, O range, Y ellow, G reen, B lue, I ndigo, and V iolet.

In contrast to rote learning, meaningful learning (a term coined by American psychologist David Ausubel in the 1960s) can be simply described as “understanding.” It is a process through which learners usefully associate newly acquired material with previous knowledge or experiences. Meaningful learning is the establishment of new clearings in the forest of our mind that can now serve as a point from which we may build new pathways to new clearings. In other words, meaningful learning yields understandings that can be described as “adaptive.”

Meaningful learning involves experiences that differ from those associated with rote learning. Some activities that bring about meaningful learning include:

  1. Metaphor : Remember that we engage with the unknown in terms of the known. Understanding comes through the useful connecting of past knowledge with newly acquired information. Metaphors are handy in this context as they compare or even equate disparate targets to communicate a similarity or type of kinship between them. Consider what might make a useful metaphor for the newly acquired information you are facing, and you will likely find a more effective path to understanding.

  2. Representation : Another highly effective means by which to cultivate our level of understanding is through representation. Studies have shown that representation efforts like drawing result in better recall due to how the information is encoded in memory. Drawing, sculpting, painting, or representational modeling of any kind may significantly enhance meaningful learning. Generally speaking, the “strength” of a memory can depend largely on how many connections are made to other memories. A less “connected” bit of information—such as a trivial fact—may be soon forgotten in the brain’s constant effort to prune away the unhelpful. The opposite is also true in that the more robust the connections, the more the memory may “resist” being forgotten. A useful adage comes to mind here in that what may be learned easily can be forgotten easily. In fact, representation is one learning practice that Dr. White recommends numerous times throughout the Medical Neuroscience course.

  3. Communication : Another way to cultivate your understanding of a concept is to try and communicate it to someone else. Research has shown that efforts to pass along knowledge to others can instill a stronger and longer-lasting understanding of that knowledge within ourselves. (e.g., Nestojko, et al., 2014.) Within the Medical Neuroscience course, you will encounter Dr. White often recommending that learners take any opportunity to share what they have learned with a friend, family, or colleague. Furthermore, this is one of the reasons that learners should take full advantage of the course forums. Discussions will cultivate understanding.

  4. Problem-solving: We can define this as the process of determining how to achieve a specific goal. Problem-solving activities—either individual or group—can allow us to see how well we can adapt newly acquired information to a different or more complex context. Successful solutions may require a host of “manipulations” of our knowledge, such as synthesis, deduction, or inference. One of the best examples of this activity can be found in the clinical scenarios presented within the Medical Neuroscience course.

Understanding these concepts can help you to navigate a new educational landscape far more successfully, as well as diminish some of the apprehensions that may be experienced early on. Be sure to take advantage of all of the resources at your disposal within the Medical Neuroscience course, as they are made available to ensure your learning experience is both effective and rewarding.