C&B Notes

How to be Brilliant

A professor at Harvard Medical School has devised a method that helps doctors learn and retain loads of critical information.  This ‘incremental’ approach has clear applicability beyond medicine into practically any other discipline:

Turning a medical student into a doctor takes a whole lot of knowledge.  B. Price Kerfoot, an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, was frustrated at how much knowledge his students seemed to forget over the course of their education. He suspected this was because they engaged in what he calls “binge and purge” learning: They stuffed themselves full of facts and then spewed them out at test time.  Research in cognitive science shows that this is a very poor way to retain information, as Kerfoot discovered when he went looking in the academic literature for answers.  But he also stumbled upon a method that really is effective, called spaced repetition.  Kerfoot devised a simple digital tool to make engaging in spaced repetition almost effortless.

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Cramming the night before an exam (or a speech or a presentation) is a sure way to make the information vanish from your head a short while later.  But exposing yourself to that same information multiple times over weeks or months fixes it firmly in your brain.  Kerfoot’s innovation was to make these spaced-out learning sessions easy and convenient.  Starting with the knowledge medical students had to master in his own specialty of urology, Kerfoot devised questions about the curriculum, with multiple-choice answers, that he sent in weekly emails to the students participating in the study.  The students took a few minutes to answer the questions on their laptops or smartphones; each week brought a new round of queries, mixing new material with material already covered.  At the end of the year, the students who received the spaced emails scored significantly higher on a test of their urology knowledge.