Self-Directed Learning

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Self-directed learning is an imperative skill for everyone in the field of medicine. It is so important that I was asked about my personal approach to self-directed learning during a residency interview. One of my 2021 resolutions is to improve this skill. There is so much to know in medicine; no one will ever know it all. That leaves us in a constant pursuit of further knowledge. Because the science behind everything we do in medicine is constantly evolving, lifelong learning and improvement is part of our job. The most successful individuals in medicine, and in all professions, have developed effective ways to maintain self-directed learning. Here I will outline some useful tips for self-directed learning. Different situations call for different methods; figure out what maximizes your gain and retention.


Short periods of learning are more effective and sustainable. This is a lifelong process. Don’t try to learn every detail in short dives into complicated literature. You’ll hate reading at home and always feel inadequate. Instead, aim to read five to ten minutes per day on one topic. Get a better understanding of it. You’ll digest more, retain larger proportions, and have much more day-to-day endurance. I have found this heightens my curiosity rather than burning me out.

List of Things to Learn

I think everyone ought to keep a running list of things they need to read about, whether it is something familiar you need a refresher on or an entirely foreign concept to you. I keep this list in the Notes app of my phone so I can quickly add to it after rounds or any time one of these topics comes up. This list is always growing, and I will never cover it all. Keeping this list reminds me that there is so much left to learn. I find that many topics arise over and over. This is an indicator of a topic I need to address sooner rather than later.

List of Things I Learned

I also keep a running list of things I learn each day. This list is generally comprised of clinical pearls or short bullet point summaries of my own reading. By typing it out, I get an extra rep with the knowledge to cement it in my brain (you’ll be amazed at how much you forget as your career in medicine goes on). The list allows me to reference the info later, and it reminds me of how much learning I am doing every day. Even days that feel monotonous and full of busy work, there is always some new piece of info that I have picked up. I don’t let the typing take more than a minute of my time. It isn’t meant to be exhaustive, just enough to make my learning more effective.

Quick Reading

As your reading list grows, you’ll want to start chipping away. Where do you start? What do you read? There are endless resources and, as it always seems in medicine, it can be easy to overwhelm yourself. Find a handful of go-to resources to always begin with. For most people, UpToDate, Medscape, and similar review databases are the obvious first choice. It is always easy to consult Google and peak through top hits to find something reputable. PubMed, filtered for resources higher up in the evidence-based medicine pyramid, is a good place to look for reviews and guidelines. Cochrane library is great. Certain textbooks serve as great review resources (Harrison’s Principals of Internal Medicine and the AAP’s Red Book, for example). Again, there are endless options. Explore until you find a few that are accessible, user-friendly, and digestible.


Podcasting is a growing medium for entertainment, education, and information sharing. The world of medical education has warmly embraced the realm of podcasts. There are numerous highly educational and learner friendly medical podcasts out there. Podcasts are great because they offer learning in a more organic, conversational way. They might take the format of case presentation, formal lecture, stream-of-consciousness teaching, clinical reasoning, etc. Podcasting offers a platform that is particularly helpful for those who are audio learners.  They also allow you to learn efficiently while doing other things, like commuting, walking, exercising, or folding laundry. Browse your favorite podcast app and listen to a few episodes to find the ones you like the most.

Ask About Resources

It is always good practice to ask colleagues, attendings, and mentors about the best resources for various topics. You’ll find some educational gems you wouldn’t have found otherwise, and you’ll send the message of genuine interest in further learning.

Learning is a never-ending inevitability in medicine. Do yourself, and your patients, a favor by finding your personal method of self-directed learning. Have your list of growing topics, use your go-to resources, keep it tolerable with small but frequent portions, and watch yourself grow as a physician.

Back to more resources.

Alan Gambril, MD
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