Introduction from Lesley: If anyone should know how to study efficiently it is Kristi Shapla, who as a mother, teacher, product formulator and producer, and wife is also a doctoral student. She has figured out techniques to help acquire effective study skills so you not only retain information better but also cut your study time down.
As well, she addresses important self care while pursuing intense or long-term studies. Studying long term, or even excess reading in general, consumes Spleen Qi and Heart Blood. To address this Chinese practitioners and scholars take herbs to nourish Spleen Qi and Heart Blood.
Kristi addresses this below, but as well the traditional formula typically used by scholars in China is Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan(Ginseng and Zizyphus Formula), sometimes today called “the Students Formula.” As well, some practitioners eat a handful of longan berries (pinyin, botanical name, “dragon eyes”) after studying or at the end of a long clinic day to replenish Heart Blood. Kristi has other wonderful suggestions for self-care.
What Doesn’t Work
We are finding that there are a lot of similarities in how people approach their lessons. Reading and highlighting are common, and are the least effective strategies for short term or long term retention (1). This is because it is a passive method. You aren’t engaging on a meaningful level. If this is your typical study protocol, try this method alone, and take the quizzes at the end of the lessons. Then try the next lesson with the strategies detailed below and compare not only your outcome, but the amount of time spent. Your goal here is to be able to answer the questions without flipping through the lesson. Research is also showing that the very popular “learning styles” method is not a valid means of retention either. If you aren’t familiar, this is a method that requires that you take a test to see which particular kind of learner you are, and then you proceed with your studies according to that style. Psychologists gave subjects these quizzes, then set up random learning style experiences, and then gave them a learning experience that catered to the “style” that they tested for. They were unable to show any improvement between random and tested styles of learning (2).
Before I even get into effective learning strategies, I want to discuss some self care tips for those embarking on a path of endless learning. This is, after all, an herb course! In terms of Chinese Medicine, overthinking, overstudying, and sitting for extended periods of time is harmful for the Spleen. So let’s look at how we can be kind to our Spleens: Diet: The Spleen, in Chinese medicine, involves digestion: turning food into Qi and Blood. And to do this, it needs warmth and dryness. Eating cold, dampening foods will only further the stress we are putting on our Spleens. I like to have homemade chai simmering on the stove while I study, getting a fresh cup during study breaks. Here is a great recipe from an East West graduate (and one of my dearest friends), Melanie St. Ours. Sweeten lightly with honey if you must, but don’t go for the instant chai teas at the grocery, unless they don’t have any added sugar. And of course, if you avoid caffeine, They are usually sweeter than soda, and while a little sweet flavor directs to and tonifies the Spleen, too much sweetness harms the Spleen! Puerh tea is another nice warm beverage that has digestion-improving qualities. For a study snack, I like to make a small bowl of goji berries and walnuts at hand. Don’t walnuts look like brains? This is called Doctrine of Signatures, where the properties of herbs can sometimes be evident in how they look. And goji berries are a Chinese medicine to tonify yin and Blood, and brighten the eyes. Often poor memory is linked with Blood Deficiency. As far as foods go, limit sweets, cold beverages, and processed foods. And be sure to get plenty of daily exercise, even if it is a short walk outside before and after study sessions. For a more thorough discussion on the Spleen, see Lesley Tierra’s blog post.
Create Manageable Goals
The main idea here is to not create hurdles for yourself. Start with small goals, like 10-20 minutes/day. Usually when I sit down for ten minutes, I decided to sit for ten more. But maintain achievable goals. Create an objective for the month, for the week, and for each study session. For monthly goals, you might want to finish one lesson each month. Then just get your planner and schedule your study sessions. Break that lesson down into smaller, weekly objectives, and voila! you have a manageable system in place. For each session, it can be something as simple as, “I want to really focus on the properties of shatavari.” Or, “I want to review 5 flashcards”. The idea is to never sit down to study without an objective. If you are really trying to get organized, I suggest a bullet planner (3) or an app like Todoist (4) to help keep you on track with your goals.
The Study Ritual
I know it is obvious, but I am going to say it anyway. Get rid of distractions! Lose the laptop if at all possible, hide your phone, tell the kids or roommates that you are only to be disturbed for emergencies. Or better yet, arrange for a daily sitter or go somewhere without distraction. If this proves too difficult, and the timing is never right, just study in 10 minute bursts. Above all else, keep reasonable goals! And since our sense of smell is so closely linked to memory (5), I light the same type of incense every time I study to cue my brain that it is time to focus. Research shows that keeping your study sessions limited to 20-30 minutes is ideal for retention. If you are lucky enough to have more time, take a 10 minute break and then have another 20-30 minute session. This is known as the Pomodoro technique. There are apps that can help you with the timing, but I use a kitchen timer since I don’t want the distraction of a device near me.
“Making it Stick”
This is the title of a book written by Peter C. Brown (6). In it, he compiles the latest research in making your study time both efficient and successful. Two of his strategies are self testing and memory retrieval. The idea here is that you would read a page or two, stop, and retrieve from your memory as best you can what you just read. The learning happens with this attempt at retrieval, and you will get better at it over time. Write down what you can remember, then go to the lesson and fill in what you left out in outline form. Another key concept of this book is to space these retrievals out. Try and recall the material the next day, but then wait a week before you revisit it. And then in two weeks. As you work, also continue to review past material and integrate with the new material to see how it fits together. If this sounds like a lot of work, there are some shortcuts! But even without the shortcuts, this type of learning is a lot more efficient than reading and highlighting and not retaining any of it. One shortcut I couldn’t live without is an App called Anki (7). This is a flashcard app that is set to the perfect algorithm for memory retention. What this means is, it will show you a card in perfect intervals to set it in long term memory. Then you have these flashcards at your disposal when you have a few minutes to review. The key about using flashcards is to have one fact and one question, not a long list of information. It should be a quick process to get through a stack. The best thing about Anki is, you can share these stacks with classmates, and there are a ton of stacks available for free. It would be fantastic to have an East West Materia Medica flashcard swap on our student forum!
Studying the Materia Medica
Flashcards Aside from flashcards, I have several different techniques I employ here. And by the way, the more different strategies you use, the more you will retain the information in a meaningful way. Flashcards are great for simple questions and answers, but learning the materia medica requires a lot of different facts for one plant. This is where the memory palace comes in. A memory palace, sometimes called Method of Loci, is a mnemonic memory strategy, where you use visualizations and spatial memory to effortlessly recall complex information. This method was developed in ancient Greece, first written about by Cicero. You create these images or scenarios in your mind, and they are proven to build long term memory like nothing else can (8). Did you know there are memory competitions? People are given a long list of numbers or facts to remember, and they are able to recite them back in perfect order. Well, the memory palace is their secret! What you do is construct a different setting for each type of herb. You could be at a racetrack for blood moving herbs. The cool energy herbs have blue jockeys and the warm energy herbs have red jockeys. The horse itself will represent what the herbs treat. Below, I will create a memory palace for myrrh, a blood moving herb. Myrrh, or Mo yao is a bitter herb, so the jockey will have a ‘bitter beer face’. It is neutral in temperature, so the jockey will be purple (red and blue combined). It generates flesh on chronic wounds and treats abdominal masses, and so the horse will be old and slow to heal, with abdominal masses and pain. See number 8 on the resource list for more details about how to construct memory palaces. Also, there is a set of flashcards that build memory palaces for each herb, called HerbZoo (9), but they only contain Chinese herbs and I think creating your own is where the learning happens. Songs The ancient Chinese way of memorizing the materia medica is through song. Physicians memorized and sang these songs daily to keep them memorized. My Classical Texts teacher, Sabine Wilms, has translated some of these songs from the Golden Cabinet (10). A few herbalists are creating modern songs as well (11), go to the Listen tab for a sample song. And of course, you can create your own songs! Art Not into music? Why not create an album of collages, one collage for each herb? It would be beautiful to have, and this type of creative expressions is very healing for your Liver. Whatever you enjoy doing as expression, whether it is poetry, dance, art, or sculpture, can all be applied to learning herbs. If you don’t have this type of creative outlet, this is a perfect opportunity to get started. Being creative with your learning internalizes the big picture stuff.
Make Friends with the Plants
One last aspect of learning herbs is to get to know them in real life. Botanical gardens, woodland hikes, and local plant walks are all opportunities to introduce yourself. There are also plenty of resources where you can buy plants and seeds and grow them yourself if you have the space (12). If you need some help getting acquainted with plant identification, this course comes with Botany in a Day (13). There is also a free online course, with a suggested donation if you have it (14). And of course, using the plants as food and medicine is the very best way to make them a part of you!
No More Excuses!
If you say you have no time, you won’t. If you are determined, it will be a priority. If you say you are too old to learn, you are. But research suggests that after some practice to get back into learning, you are just as able as anyone. And being a lifelong learner prevents age-related memory loss.
- https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/psp i /PSPI_9_3.pdf
This is the main website that started it all, but there are tons of Youtube videos and websites with drool-worthy bullet journal ideas.
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-b a bble/201501/smells-ring-bells-how-smell-triggers-memories-and-emotions
- Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; April 25, 2014.
- Chen X, Wilms S, Chen X, Chen X. Chén Xiūyuán’s Formulas from the Golden cabinet with songs: Jīn Guì Fāng Gē Kuò, volumes I-III = Chen Xiuyuan Jin gui fang ge kuo. Portland, OR: The Chinese Medicine Database; 2010.
- Elpel TJ. Botany in a day: The patterns method of plant identification. 5th ed. Encinitas, CA, United States: HOPS Press; November 1, 2004.
Kristi Shapla is an East West Clinical Herbalist, a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and is currently a graduate student of Oriental Medicine at NUNM in Portland, OR. Check out her book on brewing herbal beers: Brew Your Medicine