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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Art Project

Part of my curriculum this semester is a comparative medicine class that consists of mostly group work 2x a week on various subjects.  There is usually a quiz, and then discussions.  We are required to individually write a "portfolio" entry every week that is either reflective, discusses clinical relevance of the subject, do further research on the subject etc. I thought I would share with you (a modified) version of my portfoio entry this week, since it's been a while since I could post here (moving + surgery+ tests will do that to you). 

Last week I participated in what I affectionately called “The Art Project”. Having been given my two structures to research (vagus nerve, peroneal nerve), I combined my knowledge of their origins, insertions, functions and more, with the assigned structures of the rest of my group.

And then......we applied this knowledge to a real "live" skeleton, with ART SUPPLIES!!!!!!!

And something magical happened.

Creating the structures from yarn, foam, and balloons made nerves and blood vessels relevant to me for the first time and I actually LEARNED the the pathways and functions of various nerves and blood vessels.  No exam or “worth points” assignment for this session fostered an environment that let me indulge my creativity and learn without a stress response being triggered. 

In fact, it was so effective for my comprehension I plan to do a similar “art project” this week to make sure I thoroughly understand the flexors, extensors, and innervation of the large animal lower limb. 

A few days after The Art Project I was introduced to a new way of categorizing graduate student “learners” by a professor and it helped me to understand why The Art Project was so effective for me. 

According to the model there are three types of learners - the Deep Learner, the Strategic Learner, and the Selfish Learner. 

The Deep learner tries to learn all of it and will research details “just because” and they learn because they have a joy of learning EVERYTHING and diving into the details.  One of my best friends in school is a deep learner and it is SO good to study with her because she asks questions and looks up stuff that wouldn't occur to me.

The Strategic Learning prioritizes their learning and will learn information that is important and relevant either because it has a personal connection, or they think they might be tested on it.  Exploring the deeper meanings of things and making broader connections as an “extra bonus” is not the strong suit of the Strategic Learner. If it’s relevant they will learn it VERY well, but if it’s not......they will either decide to stuff it into short term memory before a test or not learn it at all because the actually amount of points or consequences of not knowing it is very small.

The Selfish Learner is the student that is super concerned about the tests and all their learning is directed towards passing and doing well on tests.  I'm thinking that whoever came up with this "model of learning" did not categorize themselves as a selfish learner since beyond getting good grades, there wasn't a lot of "good" to this style. Honestly, much of the time I feel this is the predominant learning style in vet school and every time I have to hear a classmate ask an instructor for them to post question examples of how information will be asked on the test it makes me want to do violence to myself.

I’m definitely a strategic learner.  I will learn information because it’s immediately useful and relevant, or because I have a specific interest in THAT subject - which is usually a very narrow aspect of the subject that I’m applying in some way in my life. For example, I have a specific interest in equine exercise physiology, which I apply to endurance.  Equine medicine doesn’t particularly interest me. Preserving, maintaining, and optimizing health and performance interests me.  Mechanisms of physiology is fascinating, but in general, disease and treatment of disease is not. One reason I chose Food Animal Medicine/Herd Health is because of the emphasis of preventative medicine concepts and applied epidemiology.

Tests aren’t a great way to make information that doesn’t fit into one of the above categories relevant to me - I find it hard to memorize and learn information just because it’s going to be on a test. I've tried motivating myself with money ($100 extra spending money for an "A"!) which only works marginally better than the threat of an upcoming test.

Being a strategic learner, I'll pick details to learn that will certainly be on a test and then spend the rest of my time researching my "pet subjects". Unfortunately blood and nerves have never been worth enough points on a exam to make them important enough to me, and knowing specific nerves and blood vessels hasn’t been important to a deeper understanding of my “pet subjects”. So, I never learned about specific blood vessels and nerves except to have a general sense that they were there.

However, being required to tie strings of yarn on a skeleton was just different enough from previous attempts to stuff blood vessel/nerve information into my brain, that it worked!!!!!

Now when I’m trying to understand how to fit random pieces of anatomy into my understanding I just think “if I was going to create this out of a piece of yarn, where would I tie it?  What would I have to weave it through?”.  This makes it just interesting enough that it prioritizes that knowledge in my “strategic learner” brain. 

It’s not that I didn’t care, its just I didn’t care enough compared to the other things.  A skeleton, some art supplies, and 2 hours devoted to The Art Project with no expectation of points subtracted or added to a final grade was enough to shut down that “prioritize and strategize” portion of my brain and let my natural curiosity and the wonder in the beauty of the biological system take over.


  1. As a former education student and a derailed teacher, I love to read about learning styles. I had never heard of the three styles of learning that you mentioned, but they make sense. I have a tendency to be the Deep Learner, which is pretty much an annoyance to everyone around me because I obsess about whatever the topic is. Your style of learning sounds much more practical, but I love that you found a learning strategy that helped you really "get" the material you were trying to learn. It's every teacher's dream to have a student learn like that, and something not often found in more advanced learning situations. I've never figured out why we spend so much time trying to figure out how to help 1st graders learn the alphabet, but dedicate almost no time to learning strategies for advanced students in grad school, law school, vet school, or med school.

  2. For all I know this instructor made this system up to entertain us between labs.....but even if that's the case i think any model that allows a person insight into how they are approaching the world is useful. Gaining understanding about myself and how others might be different helps me not become frustrated with people around me. I think the downside of being a strategic learner is that until its relevant to me I don't care and I won't learn it. Grades, money etc are not strong motivators. Embarrassment, pride, and earning time off to go do my own thing are probably much stronger motivators. Tiny class size and impending clinics probably explain much if my new found motivation in school......


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