Thursday, April 9, 2009

Practical model for using the Information Processing Theory to stay current with (medical) literature

The Information Processing Theory compares the human brain to a computer and suggests that just like we can make a computer work better by changing the processor, motherboard or RAM and the programming, the human can also become more sophisticated thinkers with appropriate strategies, sensory inputs and rules.

While I don't know how well validated this theory is, it does describe an interesting flow of information from the sensory register to short term memory to long term memory.
The wikipedia describes it thus

Sensory register: the mental processing unit that receives information from the environment and stores it fleetingly.
Short-term memory: the mental processing unit in which information may be stored temporarily; the work space of the mind, where a decision must be made to discard information or to transfer it to permanent storage, in long-term memory.
Long-term memory: the encyclopedic mental processing unit in which information may be stored permanently and from which it may be later retrieved.

The way I understand it, Constructivism works great for understanding how we can facilitate learning of new concepts e.g. medical students learning anatomy in their first year. Active learning, Problem based small group discussions, etc.

When we think about how to help a practicing physician keep up with medical updates in his or her specialty, it is a different setting. The person already knows the subject, is busy and probably does not have much time for collaborative learning in small groups. The constructs have already been formed during medical school, residency and subsequent experiences. It seems self directed learning using the principles of the Information Processing Theory would very helpful to help the physician refine these constructs on a longitudinal basis. Let me show you a model of how this would work.

Software needed:

  1. Google Reader This is a free web application and all it requires is a free Google account.
  2. Zotero I have referred to Zotero in a previous post. It is a free bibliography and citation tool that works as an add on to Firefox.
Screen shots of the Model:

Overview of Google Reader

Google Reader Detail:

Zotero Overview:

Zotero Details:

Retrieval from Zotero:

Steps in the Model:

  1. Set up RSS subscriptions to your specialty medical journals in Google Reader
  2. This allows abstracts of articles flow into your Reader automatically and allows you to view these in one place
  3. This is equivalent to the sensory register mentioned above. When you browse through the RSS feeds, you "receive the information from the environment and store it fleetingly"
  4. As you scan through the abstracts, you can in Google Reader mark the ones that seem significant and relevant with a star. The Google Reader automatically tracks the ones you have browsed and removes them from the "home screen".
  5. You have thus gone through the process of determining whether the abstracts are to be discarded or to be processed for storage in long term memory. This is similar to the short term memory proposed in the Information Processing Theory.
  6. When you have more time and inclination, you return to the Google Reader using Firefox that has the Zotero plug-in installed.
  7. You click on the hyperlink to the abstract and from there to the full text article if you have access. You read the abstract and determine that it is worth "storing". Zotero allows you to take a "Snapshot" of the article and annotate it with notes, keywords and highlights. The bibiliography information of the article along with the annotated snapshot and notes and keywords are all stored in your Zotero library
  8. Zotero allows each reference item to be included in several collections. Thus as an Internist, I have collections for all subspecialties of medicine - e.g. Cardiology, Pulmonary etc.
  9. This process of analysing the article, annotating it and adding keywords, notes and sorting into collections is similiar to encoding that is described in Constructivism and helps move the information into a more permanent long-term storage.
  10. The entire Zotero library is searchable and allows for easy retreival of previously processed information. As information is recalled and applied more often, it is more likely to become true knowledge.
Try it out, you have nothing to lose and possibly a lot to gain!