Learn Fast, Forget Fast

The strange thing about the undergrad experience is that you don’t actually learn much of anything. It seems to me that the most important lesson I’ve been taught is just this: to learn fast and forget fast.

I have a pet theory that I’ve become dumber as I’ve gotten older. I can, now, at the ripe old age of 20, say I’ve truly mastered the art of forgetting fast to meet the demands of my incredible shrinking brain. I’d like to veil my malady as a very rare case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, but something tells me that  medical school admissions officers—and perhaps my very lucid parents—might object to this self-diagnosis.

I’ve spent the past two years taking all the required classes and drudging along as most pre-med students do. Much of what we learn isn’t actually that complicated—the biggest problem is that, with the exception of the lucky few blessed with eidetic memories, most of us just can’t know it all. We can study all we want and be as aggressively, obsessively, obnoxiously pre-med as we’d like, but most of us rely more on making good guesses or writing everything we know on tests in the hopes of winning points and getting partial credit.

This might all seem a little pessimistic. But from my experiences, there are more than a few who would agree that it’s an uphill battle most of the time: you can try to learn deeply and thoroughly, and try to be as focused and planned as possible, but eventually it all catches up to you. You learn quickly that it’s really about the grades, and that to keep up with fellow students you have to adopt their mindset. You can’t bank on learning everything, you have to learn quickly and smartly, and that means taking shortcuts wherever possible. It means caring less about what you are learning and more about how you should learn it.

I suppose the real problem lies with the system—that college isn’t necessarily conducive to learning in its purest form. It’s a bit of a buzz kill, really, since I thought college was all about that—that by my junior year, I’d be having highbrow conversations about tachycardia and amyloidosis. Suffice to say, my knowledge of those terms has more to do with my devotion to the TV showHouse and less to do with my textbooks.

Maybe these are just the crazy ramblings of a disillusioned pre-med student. It’s possible that other classes I take fall short when compared to my journalism classes, where I might learn less, but the skills I develop stick with me and feel more directly applicable. I can take what I’m taught about search engine optimization and magazine cover strategy and use that in my analysis of a magazine or in writing my next feature. Even though it feels like I’m not learning much, I’m cultivating skills that I can use outside the safety net that is college. I’m practicing habits that will, hopefully, stick with me.

This probably has to do with the fact that I’m getting a pre-professional degree in journalism and that I should expect Medill to prepare me to work at a publication straight out of college. My pre-med complaints, on the other hand, might actually mean that I’m plain stupid and can’t retain information and therefore am not cut out for the field, in which case I blame my genes entirely (dear parents, why couldn’t you have given me better raw material to work with?)

For now, it’s fine for me to call myself “a joke” and laugh at the fact that I just dropped a biochem class where I was essentially relearning material I’ve been taught in two previous classes here. But what really scares me is that someday I have to know all this. I have to remember everything I’ve learned—not simply for the sake of acing the MCAT, but for the sake of applying that knowledge when real human lives are at stake.

I think it’s easy to sit back and lose sight of where you’re headed, to forget that in a few years, you might—if you’re lucky—be wearing a white coat. Pre-med students in particular can be so unbelievably aggressive that they don’t always step back to think about what it is they’re aiming for anymore; that it cannot forever be about “making it,” and that eventually we must take what we know and use it intelligently and ethically.

Perhaps our professors are doing the right thing in testing us in the way that they do—many of those test questions are critical thinking exercises that, unfortunately, leave most of us floundering. Most people I know do question if they’ll be good enough, and it’s a natural concern. We’re all only human. How can we ever know everything? How do we know if any of us will ever be good enough, particularly in such a field?

My late aunt, a successful gastroenterologist who succumbed to ovarian cancer five years ago, used to worry that doctors didn’t care enough to dig deep, to ask important questions, to analyze and compare and really understand the nature of their jobs. She was concerned that many people skimmed the surface rather than delving deeper into the issues surrounding the medical profession, perhaps due to the restrictions of the health care system that tied their hands and due to personal choice.

Dr. Atul Gawande, the renowned surgeon-cum-writer, reassures myself and others by accepting and understanding that, despite the increasing specialization in medicine, even the best, most practiced, and trained doctors are not infallible—though as his biggest fan, I do like to think he is. Gawande advocates a checklist as a simple solution to human error in his latest book TheChecklist Manifesto. He explains that even after years of rigorous instruction, doctors cannot know it all or do it all and certainly cannot remember it all.

Given Gawande’s simple answer to a complex problem, it appears my seemingly hyperbolic decrease in brain size might not be cause for extreme concern—though its direct relationship to my plummeting GPA might be. I may never get the chance to don a white coat if I continue to live by the mantra of “Cs get degrees … but Bs get M.D.s”

Pavithra Mohan is a junior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

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