Kieran Walsh: Why do we learn?

The current Olympic weight-lifting champion is Lasha Talakhadze. He can lift over 250 kg. This is an impressive feat for a human being—but a forklift truck can do considerably better. A forklift truck can lift over 1800 kg. So why do people lift weights? I guess for a variety of reasons—ranging from enjoyment to keeping fit to winning medals.

Let’s move to learning—and remembering what you have learned. Memory sports are sports where an individual learns and memorises as much information as possible within a fixed period of time. Someone who is really good—a memory champion—can learn over 1500 random numbers in 30 minutes.

But a computer can remember millions of numbers in the same period of time. So why do we learn things off by heart? This is not a rhetorical question—the answer is because we are not being logical.

The logical thing to do is to use computers more. Computers are powerful and getting more powerful. Learning things off by heart requires a great deal of mental effort—and it doesn’t always work. We are human and so we simply forget. To stop ourselves forgetting, we undertake a variety of activities. We plan our learning, try to learn “actively”, test ourselves, and get feedback on what we have learned. And then we learn it all again after a reasonable interval. Medical curricula have been reformed so that there is less rote learning, but I still meet lots of medical students who say that they have to learn lots of things by heart in preparation for their exams.

What is the solution? Some authorities suggest that the core curriculum should be smaller—so students will have less to remember. But the problem is deciding what is core. Curriculum meetings can be difficult—everyone wants to get their subject on the curriculum.

A more radical idea is for students to learn knowledge searching techniques and give them access to knowledge resources. But there is a problem here too. Too many knowledge resources are not evidence-based or independent or patient-centred. Too many resources do not help healthcare professionals overcome the information paradox—where healthcare professionals have access to a massive volume of information, yet cannot find the exact piece of information that they need. The answer surely lies in reforming our knowledge resources—that is no easy task, but it should be scalable. Modern technology means that one resource can be used simultaneously by thousands of people. It is surely better than trying to remember more than a computer can.

Kieran Walsh is clinical director of BMJ Learning and BMJ Best Practice. He is responsible for the editorial quality of both products. He has worked in the past as a hospital doctor—specialising in care of the elderly medicine and neurology. 

Competing interests: Kieran Walsh works for BMJ—which provides the clinical decision support tool BMJ Best Practice.