As a third year medical student, Audrey Tran takes the information she reads on the page and uses it to map out a story. Now, ten of her study aids are available in OHSU’s Scholars Archive. Study aid topics include: the principles of pharmacology, lipid and cholesterol metabolism, as well as the electron transport chain. Tran’s study aids are part of a growing interest in how visual thinking strategies can improve clinical observations.1 Other researchers have looked at how strategic interactions with art museum educators can influence patient care.2 Tran answered a few questions about how “visual learning can orient students, especially those who are new to the field, who are bright, but maybe need to experience new ideas more viscerally. It’s a way to be inclusive and can encompass all learning styles.”
Q: How does creating the study aids help you learn?
A: As humans we are limited to our own experience, but disease is often anatomic, cellular, or molecular in nature. When it comes to abstract concepts, I personally cannot understand it unless I viscerally experience it in some way. I’ve never been great at rote memorization, but when I learn by drawing, I start to understand the underlying logic behind all this new information. I’m the first in my family to go to medical school, and so there are many foreign concepts in medicine that feels like I’m groping in the dark! I relate to the material much better if I am able to travel alongside it, the way Ms. Frizzle, the teacher from the Magic School Bus books, would drive the magic school bus along the cells. Lastly, by using hand-drawn illustrations, it reminds me that at the end of the day medicine, while striving to be purely logical, is ultimately a human endeavor. There’s just something about hand-drawn things that help me recognize the humanity in the principles I’m trying to learn.
Q: What’s important for teachers to know about visual learners?
A: Mostly that people have different learning styles. The way we absorb information in a Power Point slide during a live presentation is a very different experience than reading it online afterwards. For example, there may be five different slides to recreate an animation in Power Point. Sometimes I’m fastidiously studying one slide until I realize that the next slide had all the information I needed! Written study guides, in contrast, have all of the salient information neatly organized… but I will admit that for me that text alone is insufficient to make the knowledge stick. Which is why I turn to drawings, especially for the most high yield concepts!
In my drawings, I try to make the most important concept the largest. Tidbits that are interesting but not essential are deemphasized in some ways — often smaller size font or placed in brackets. Colors are used strategically to help draw inferences between things that are similar, or things that should be contrasted. One way I have learned how to convey what’s important and what’s not is by having a consistent system that uses all these visual cues to prioritize information. To be clear, I don’t think students or lecturers should be expected to draw all of their notes or lesson plans, but if there was a system that we could adhere to relay information without using precious word real estate, I truly wonder how much more streamlined the learning process could be.
At the end of the day, it just goes to show that there are multiple ways of looking at and absorbing the same information. Especially for new learners, it’s critically important not to be hard on yourself if you don’t learn well from a certain medium.
Q: What role do you think drawing will play in your future interactions with patients?
A: I have this silly little idea…but I really think my experiences with illustration could help transform patient education materials. When I go home from my medical appointments, I have the papers and I know it has important information, but it gets stuffed in a drawer somewhere. What if we hung it up these after-visit summaries like it was art?
I think OHSU does a nice job of having easy-to-understand materials, but illustrated materials could go one step further. With the right amount of effort they could have a nice library of after-visit summaries and discharge information that’s both easy to understand, as well as beautiful and fun to look at. Granted, there are many complex diseases that may not be conveyable through illustration, but I think patients want to take ownership of their health and what’s going on in their own bodies. I think using visual art to help empower them could be really cool and could lead to a more equitable shared decision-making process.
The Scholars Archive seeks additional kinds of study aids and other creative works produced within the OHSU community. More information can be found by emailing Pam Pierce, Digital Scholarship & Repository Librarian, at email@example.com.
1 Agarwal, G. G., McNulty, M., Santiago, K. M., Torrents, H., & Caban-Martinez, A. J. (2020). Impact of visual thinking strategies (VTS) on the analysis of clinical images: A pre-post study of VTS in first-year medical students. Journal of Medical Humanities, doi:10.1007/s10912-020-09652-4.
2 Miller, A., Grohe, M., Khoshbin, S., & Katz, J. T. (2013). From the galleries to the clinic: Applying art museum lessons to patient care. Journal of Medical Humanities, 34(4), 433-438. doi:10.1007/s10912-013-9250-8.