How to overcome a new subject


Let’s say you’ve never received immunology classes so you have little knowledge of the subject. At what level do you start the learning process? Do you choose a specialized manual and move on? Or do you start with an introductory text that works at more general levels? Because your daily bread is to be ambitious, you may be inclined to choose the specialized manual. “I’m going straight to the marathon, I do not need training!” With this strategy you will not get very far. Why? Because when you go directly to the details, all this information makes little sense to you.

An important factor that determines the actual storage of new information is how much prior knowledge we have about the subject. Learning is easier when we can connect new information to previous knowledge. The problem with jumping directly into the brush, as a beginner, is that you will get lost in the great labyrinth of details that are difficult to put together, leaving you brain saturated.

In addition, you will lose the forest among the trees. Trapped in the details, you will not see the basic proposals, such as “cytokines are released by immune cells in response to invading pathogens” since you’ll get lost in the hundreds of details there. General principles like these are not always obvious, especially for the newbies. Good textbooks and good teachers will clearly show you the main ideas, but not many other sources will, but they will leave you without any help for the creation of the general picture. That’s why the right approach is to move sequentially from lower levels of detail to levels where those details are higher. By learning in this way, you will allow your brain to absorb and understand much more than if it plunged directly into the mystical depths of knowledge. 🙂

Learning in this sequential manner also characterizes a strategic study. Most of us will develop in different specialties, where our knowledge will be rich and profound. For these cases, we will want to acquire a very detailed specialized knowledge. But for anything else, the general image is enough, which, if forgotten, can be found in an external reference. But to know what to look for, you must have the basic knowledge. It is enough to see the important links between the different concepts.

For a basic level, you will need something like “How does the immune system work? If you are starting, you should read something like that to get an approximate idea about the elements of Immunology and how to link these together. If you want to go deeper, you must pass, for example, to Basic Immunology from Abbas and Lichtman. And if you want something more in detail, you could move forward with Molecular and Cellular Immunology of Abbas and Lichtman.

By learning in this sequential way, you will absorb, understand and remember the maximum amount of information. Try going directly to Molecular and Cellular Immunology and you will hit a rock. In fact, medical students often complain that a similar subject such as Immunology is a complicated challenge, and one of the reasons is that teachers sometimes give too many details from the beginning, the bombing overwhelms and the students are lost. Therefore, intelligent students will have confidence in their own judgment when choosing suitable introductory books for a new subject.

This is an example, use it for your specific situation whatever you study.


Cornell Method

The Cornell method was devised in the 1950s by an expert in study techniques from Cornell University, Walter Pauk.

In spite of its antiquity, this method is still widely commented today, so I thought I’d give it a chance. That’s why I’ve started to try it at conference talks. This method has two parts: A) Prepare the sheets according to a template; and B) Learn how to use the template.



  • Greatest to take notes in class.
  • A column to the left to write key words or phrases when reviewing the notes.
  • A bottom zone to write down a summary or key ideas of the leaf content.
  1. Take notes in class in the large area.
  2. After class (no more than 24 hours later), read it again and write questions on the left side area that are answered with the content of the notes.
  3. Recite what you read: cover the large area, read the questions and try to answer them aloud.
  4. Reflect on what has been read: meaning, general rules that apply, what relationship you have with other topics …
  5. Review each week the notes you prepared using the left area, and if necessary, make an even more concise summary in the lower area.

First problem I encounter when I use this system: I have little space to write in class. Although on the scheme it seems that there is much space, when I start writing I find it very small. That means that every hour of talk will occupy me several more pages than usual.

Nevertheless, it seems to me a success of this method to reserve spaces for abstracts and keywords. When you study something very visual that space is good to include drawings or schemes to accompany the writing in class. In fact, I usually leave a wide margin to the left precisely for that in my notes. But I find it useful to separate clearly the area of notes and the summary with a straight line, to be able to use each zone in a different way when reviewing.

If the class is somewhat confusing, you may have to use the side area to rewrite the subject, or even that you have to organize your notes or use notes of other years. At first it seems that a lot of paper is wasted, but I think if you take notes by hand it is worth it, so try the system.

If you take notes on a laptop, it is not necessary to use a special template, because then in your study time you can modify and complement the notes as much as you want depending on what software you are using. Although they say out there that taking notes on computer does not allow to retain information equally well that if you take it by hand, but that will be subject for another post.