Be A Better Learner – Part Three at #TTCNYC15

Be A Better Learner 1-2


This is the third post in a three-part refashioning of my talk on being a better learner from The Teaching Course in New York. Find part one – Physician, Know Thyself – here, and part two – Physician, Teach Thyself – here.

Healthy Mind

Love yourself and be passionate

Please be kind to yourself. You’re awesome.

The work we do in healthcare can be really, really hard. First and foremost we must love ourselves. Trust me, I’ll say it again, you’re awesome!

At the Teaching Course in New York we did an exercise in identifying your key strengths. You can do this too – just email/text/whatsapp a handful of close friends, family members and/or colleagues and ask them what your top three strengths are.

This is a great exercise for exposing hidden competencies – it’s a trimmed down version of the JoHari window, a model developed in the 1950s for developing personality awareness. If you want to undertake the exercise you can do an online version here.

Strive for learning, not perfection

Stress can help or hinder us and its effects are dose responsive. Our clinical lives can be incredibly stressful as we make life changing decisions and it is unhelpful if the first time we experience these levels of stress is in real life. Similarly, though, it’s unhelpful if we are overstressed in rehearsal, like in simulation sessions. This is counter-productive for learning.

The best way to understand your responses to stress and develop them is to work one-on-one with an understanding educator. Stress inoculation is a great development in medical education but it needs to be carefully undertaken by educators who really understand its impact.

As a human being, aiming for perfection is unrealistic (but as healthcare professionals in competitive careers we can really struggle with this). Refocusing to identify learning in situations rather than simply polarising results into success or failure can help us to maintain an enthusiasm for learning. We are unfinished works of art and there is beauty in that. Find ways to remind yourself that you should be kind to yourself.

Learn how and when to say no

Not every career opportunity is one you should take. There will be a time when you have to say no, and for some people the act of saying no is very difficult.

In order to decide when to say no, you need to know your personal priorities in life; know what matters most to you. We also did an exercise for this at the Teaching Course in New York but there is a similar one here. Everyone makes decisions according to their personal priority framework. The things that are most important to you are not for anyone else to determine.  It’s really important to understand your priorities; this is how you should make decisions, framed with the things that really matter to you in mind. When it comes down to it we often struggle to see that work is not the most important thing we have but the exercise made that crystal clear for many of us. Loving yourself and your mind means giving your priorities appropriate time and attention.

Put the big rocks in the jar first.

Healthy Body

Sleep well, eat well

Fatigue is never good for learning! The cost to your learning when you stay up late far outweighs any benefit you think you are getting. Sleep helps assimilation of information and organisation of new concepts and ideas, it drives neuronal pattern stabilisation, reinforcement and efficiency in learning.

Even if you’re not sleeping, good breaks are important between intense learning sessions (particularly if you’re revising for exams). This is a relatively new area but it’s likely we’ll see more research on the effects of sleep on learning in the next few years.

If you work shifts and struggle to sleep, try the advice here.


Exercise is really important. As someone who didn’t do any for about fifteen years, I realise this is not a message you’ll truly hear until you’re ready but just in case you’re ready to start right now, please do – it’ll change your life for the better!

For me, exercise is about headspace. It’s time on my own, when thoughts can sort themselves out. It’s a key part of my presentation preparation as often while I’m running ideas just rearrange themselves and make more sense (I take my phone out on runs so I can stop and make a note if I think of something brilliant).

And one of the best things about exercise, even if it’s horrible at the time, is that there’s an endorphin kick at the end. It’s addictive (it also helps you sleep better).

There’s some evidence that children who exercise have better test scores. It’s probably worth a try – right?

Learn other stuff

There’s great evidence for crossover from learning music.

Musicians develop more than just ability to play an instrument; the deliberate practice develops motor skills, and concentration on the fine acoustics of sound improve language comprehension and attention, working memory and self-regulation. There are huge benefits from being involved in music but also in other aspects of life. Having other hobbies, passions and activities is key to being able to survive longer term in the hectic Emergency Department environment.

“Every man needs a job, a sport and a hobby.” (Rod Stewart via Alistair Meyer)


Make it Social, Make it Stick

Social learning for fun

I might look like I'm learning alone in this picture (I'm revising for MCEM A, back in 2007, on a beach in Portugal) - but notice there's a second towel and a photographer. My revision group (especially my friend Dave Clarke) is the secret to my exam successes.
I might look like I’m learning alone in this picture (I’m revising for MCEM A, back in 2007, on a beach in Portugal) – but notice there’s a second towel, some extra flip-flops – and a photographer. My revision group (especially my friend Dave Clarke) is the secret to my exam successes.

Learn with friends. Enjoy it. For your exams you’ll need friends who totally understand. You can expose each others’ strengths and weaknesses, celebrate and commiserate together.

We should consider learning as we’re going to work – we work in teams so we should train in teams. The theory of social constructivism emphasises the collaborative nature of learning.

In our departments we can commit to learning all day, every day. When nurses or juniors ask “why” about something, we can learn not be threatened or annoyed – it’s a great opportunity to teach or, if you don’t know the answer, learn!

Seek mentorship, up and down

Proud to mentor these fantastic women; future medical leaders Grace Leo and Rianne Brand
I’m proud to mentor these fantastic women; future medical leaders Grace Leo and Rianne Brand

Organic mentorships are incredibly valuable for self-development. It’s very helpful to have someone who believes in you, and ladies – this is especially pertinent for you. Find yourself a mentor – it needn’t be an explicit relationship (one which is set up formally by an institution) but it’s important they are not involved in your assessment; find someone who knows who you are and what you want and believes you can get there. Often these relationships evolve over time and will help you explore and achieve your potential.

And also consider being that mentor to someone else. Share the love 🙂

Cultivate your network

Of course I feel hugely blessed to be a part of the St Emlyn's team; a group of motivated clinicians who strive to be better, individually and collectively
Of course I feel hugely blessed to be a part of the St Emlyn’s team; a group of motivated clinicians who strive to be better, individually and collectively

Swami talked about Personal Learning Networks at the Teaching Course (I’ll add the link to the recorded version of his talk when it’s available) so I won’t attempt to give his talk again but there is a huge medical (and nursing, and paramedic) world out there. Be a part of it, particularly if you are an educator. There are some incredible, awesome, inspiring people who will answer you if you tweet them. You’ll learn things you didn’t know you didn’t know and have some fantastic experiences. Connect yourself – give it a try and build yourself a community of practice.

The Final Word

So off you go – know yourself, teach yourself, enjoy yourself and be a better learner. And I suspect that knowing and understanding these dimensions of ourselves as learners will help us to be better teachers too.

Be A Better Learner 1

Do you have any other tips for being a better learner? I’d love to hear them.



Before you go please don’t forget to…

Cite this article as: Natalie May, "Be A Better Learner – Part Three at #TTCNYC15," in St.Emlyn's, December 5, 2015,

3 thoughts on “Be A Better Learner – Part Three at #TTCNYC15”

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