How to quickly learn anything (Tree Method)

How To Quickly Learn Anything [Tree Method]

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In this article, I will teach you how to quickly learn anything using an effective method called the Tree Method.

Learning for fun is often like growing a tree. There’s absolutely no pressure while you nurture the growth of the foundation and then begin to add the details that would eventually make you an expert.

Learning for school, on the other hand, is a total opposite story.

So today we’re going to talk about how you can use the simple Tree Method to help you learn more effectively on your medical journey. It’s the same method that I used to help me get a 3.9 GPA in medical school.

Let’s break it down!

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Why The Typical Lecture Approach Doesn’t Work

To understand how the tree method works and how to properly apply it, we have to first understand why the typical lecture approach doesn’t work.

Whether it’s your first or tenth class of the week, you already know you’re going to get fire hose with a bunch of information. At this point, you’re really hoping for two things: First, that your lecture goes slow, and second, that your brain works fast.

So as soon as the lecture starts, you start doing your typical note taking system of writing, typing, highlighting, or whatever it may be, to create notes that ideally will be useful when it’s time to go home and review.

Fast forward an hour later, you’re actually proud of the art that you now call your notes.

But internally, you’re also feeling anxiety growing because you know it’s starting to look confusing. And if it’s confusing now, it surely will be confusing in a week or two weeks from now when you need to study for your quiz or test with those notes.

With that sheer amount of information, those big topics, details, charts, and bullet points, what do you really need to know and how do you master it?

Well, that’s exactly where the Tree Method comes in.

There are two ways that you can do this: the Traditional Tree Method and my personal favorite, the Q&A Tree Method.

I’m going to show you how to do both methods step-by-step using a sample lecture. But the ultimate goal is to learn in an organized way.

Method #1 Traditional Tree Method

To demonstrate the Traditional Tree Method, we’re going to take this sample lecture that I’ve used in medical school for quite some time. This is about AFib (Atrial Fibrillation).

How to quickly learn anything (AFib)

How to quickly learn anything (Lecture background)

This is your traditional PowerPoint presentation with lots of words and data, and it’s just so busy. If you don’t know anything about this topic, it can feel daunting at first.

Multiply this by three or four lectures that you may have in a day, and it gets even more overwhelming.

So let’s talk about how you can take a lecture like this and break it down piece by piece into something that’s easy to learn.

Identify The Trunks, Branches, and Leaves

The first step is to identify the big ideas or “trunks“, and make sure to master them before focusing on little pieces of details, facts, or “branches” and “leaves.

If you’re not sure what the trunks are, they are often the highlights or the headings of a lecture.

For example, here we’re talking about AFib. So epidemiology is one of the trunks in the first few slides, where we’re talking about the people who get AFib.

How to quickly learn anything (prevalence of AFib)

The next trunks are the signs and symptoms, and how to diagnose somebody. After that, we talk about workup.

How to quickly learn anything (Signs and symptoms)

How to quickly learn anything (workup slide)

And then finally, you get to management or the different ways on how to treat it.

Many of these slides are talking about treatments, and there are specific parts about treatments that they are breaking down even further.

How to quickly learn anything (management)How to quickly learn anything (long-term treatment)How to quickly learn anything (treatment 2)  

So I’m already starting to get an idea of what my trunks and branches are, and then those tiny bits of details that would end up being the leaves of this tree.

Now, I would just take a Word document and write my four trunks first: epidemiology, symptoms, workup, and management.

How to quickly learn anything (Trunks)

Under each trunk, we will be adding the branches and leaves.

Trunk #1 Epidemiology/Pathophysiology

How to quickly learn anything (epidemiology branches)

For example, under epidemiology, the lecture includes the pathophysiology of how somebody ends up getting AFib, and who are affected. The next slide is about the different types of AFib or the classifications. And the next one is about related diseases and causes

Those are the things under the big trunk for epidemiology that I would want to master when I start reviewing.

When you’re first writing your outline, there could be duplications or redundancies, and that’s okay. You can take those out later.

Trunk #2 Symptoms

How to quickly learn anything (symptoms branches)

The next trunk is symptoms. On the first slide are basic symptoms, so we can write “classic presentation“.

The next slide talks not only about symptoms but more of the pathophysiology or who are affected and risks downstream, such as risk of stroke, CHF, and mortality.

Trunk #3 Workup

For the workup trunk, there is the basic workup, EKG, and echo

How to quickly learn anything (workup)

Now, if I go to the next slide, I see a busy chart like this:

How to quickly learn anything (chart)

If I’m not familiar with AFib, or if I haven’t gone to the lecture, this is going to be a lot. So I’m just going to make sure that I keep this in my mind and ask myself where this is going to fit or if I need to create a new branch for it.

Trunk #4 Management

Now, let’s move on to management or treatments. We can see that there are multiple categories.

One branch is prevention and the other is treatment. Under treatment, there’s rate and rhythm treatment.

How to quickly learn anything (Management branches)

That is just an initial pass of the lecture. You can easily do this before going to class, or maybe ten minutes before your lecture, to understand what details and categories you’re going to be focusing on.

Add More Information

Now, we want to make sure that we get those extra bits of branches and details that we haven’t quite gotten in the first pass.

For example, in the management section, there’s a score called a CHA2DS2-VASc score. So maybe I need to know that. There’s also stroke risk scoring and anticoagulation.

How to quickly learn anything (additional branches)


How to quickly learn anything (additional branches 2)

We can also add more details such as using warfarin versus other medications. While quickly scanning the notes, I’m seeing treatments that are more like therapies versus meds, so I can add those as well.

Keep in mind that this framework or this tree has room to grow, so you can add more bullets and information as you learn.

But now, if I’m going into lecture, I know that these are the things that I will be paying attention to.

Thus, when I start reviewing, I should know the basic management of taking care of somebody with AFib before I start worrying about the indications for each specific blood thinner that they may have to take. If I don’t know that they need a blood thinner to treat AFib, then I can’t answer the more specific questions.

You can see how the Tree Method makes you focus broadly first and then get into the nitty gritty.

When To Write The Outline

Now, the decision to create an outline like this either before class or during class is completely up to you. It’s a personal decision.

If you’re a fast typer and you can do this on the spot, go for it. But if your professor talks really quickly or you have very busy slides with lots of words, then it would be useful to spend five or ten minutes before lecture to create your outline.

When lecture comes, you can write additional bullet points. If you identify more specific branches that can help you understand the topics even better, then go ahead and include them.

How to quickly learn anything (workup 2)

For example, this slide is talking about workup. We have initially listed a bunch of things under basic workup.

But maybe the professor goes into more details and mentions checking the H&P, TSH, and electrolytes. You can add those small branches and leaves or those details that your professor is talking about for your future reference.

How to quickly learn anything (treatment)

Here’s another example. If we’re going to the treatment part, there’s a busy slide that talks about a variety of drugs. But maybe your professor doesn’t care that you know all of them.

He’ll say that the main ones that you need to know are amiodarone and sotalol, and he’ll tell you which treatments you have to remember. Then you’ll know how to edit your outline to make it more succinct for your review.

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How To Review The Tree Method

Once you finish the lecture and you have an initial outline using the Tree Method, how in the world can you review this to improve your retention before the quiz or test?

Tip #1 Start From The Big Ideas

If we go back into this outline that we have here for AFib, we have to make sure that we understand the big ideas before we go into the individual branches and leaves.

It doesn’t matter if I can memorize amiodarone and sotalol if I don’t know that those are rhythm treatments that are some options for managing AFib.

And so the first thing that I’ll do is ask myself: How do I treat AFib? I need to know that there are a few ways.

First, there are some preventative things like getting them on a blood thinner based on a scoring system.

How to quickly learn anything (outline)

If I can mention that I have to control the rhythm of their heart, then I can say a few options for their rhythm including drugs like amiodarone or sotalol.

But if I can’t mention rhythm as part of my treatment options, then I can’t go to the details of mentioning the individual drugs.

Another example is asking yourself first about the epidemiology or the pathophysiology of AFib. Only after that can you start discussing the pathophysiology, the people who are affected, the classifications, and the related diseases and causes.

Tip #2 Color Coding

Usually, I love color coding different parts of the outline during the lecture because it helps me have a visualization of how well I know something.

How to quickly learn anything (color coding)

Let’s say I know the pathophysiology and who are affected by AFib, so I’ll highlight them green. But maybe the classifications are new to me, so I can highlight them yellow, meaning that I need to come back to them.

And let’s say I have nailed down the related diseases and causes, so it will be green as well.

And for the symptoms, I don’t quite get the classic presentation and the pathophysiology, so I would highlight them red.

How to quickly learn anything (color coding 2)

When I’m done with the entire lecture, I can figure out where I want to start in terms of reviewing the topics. Or if I ever come back to this lecture again in the weekend or before a quiz or test, I’ll already know where to start first.

You want to make sure you turn those reds into yellows, and those yellows into greens, and ideally master everything before day of the test.

So this is how we review the outline using the Tree Method. It’s simple yet very effective.

You don’t even need a Word doc to do this. You can do it on Notion or on your notebook. You can even write it on your PowerPoint presentation notes or on the side if you’re using OneNote or any other note apps.

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Method #2 Q&A Tree Method

Now, from the traditional tree method, we will transition to the Q&A Tree Method, which is my personal favorite and a very effective way to learn and review.

How to quickly learn anything (traditional method)

The main difference between the first method and the Q&A Tree Method is basically the Q&A part. Instead of simply writing the topics and details, you’re going to convert each of them into question form.

I would basically do the same initial steps in the traditional method, and then I’ll turn the topics into questions.How to quickly learn anything (Q&A tree method)

For example, “epidemiology/pathophysiology” will become “What is the epidemiology and pathophysiology of AFib?”.

Sometimes I’m lazy and I don’t even write the full question. For the topics under epidemiology, I can write “Pathophy?”, which basically means “What is the pathophysiology of AFib?”. Then I can simply add questions marks for “Who’s affected?” and “Classification?”.

If you want a complete question, you can say “What are the related diseases/causes?”

And if there are specific things that the professor mentions, you can add those as well. Maybe he says paroxysmal AFib is the most common, you can add: “Most common type?”

How to quickly learn anything (Q&A tree method 2)

These look like individual quizzes within a bigger piece of category. 

Next, we do the same with the symptoms trunk.

Here is the outline using the Traditional Tree Method:

How to quickly learn anything (traditional method - symptoms)

And here is the one using the Q&A Tree Method:

How to quickly learn anything (Q&A tree method 3)

You can write sentences if they help you remember the question you’re trying to go for. 

Do the same with the rest of the trunks Workup, Management, and Treatment.

That’s how you can take notes so that when you come back home, you can answer the questions to make sure you understand the topics.

If I cannot answer the question on what the epidemiology of AFib is, then it means I haven’t mastered it. Thus, I will color code this yellow or orange and I’ll try to master that first before I go into the specific questions.

The biggest issue with going through any lecture is we try to understand the details as best as possible with the same focus and quality that we give the big topics. But it’s important to build the foundation first.

And so if I can’t tell you what the overall workup of AFib is, then I really don’t have any business telling you those left atrial findings on an echo.

It’s silly to know whatever measurement, but not know that you have to do an H&P, TSH, electrolytes, and EKG.

You want to make sure to get the big points first before you go further down your tree.

It’s the same thing with the management trunk. If I don’t understand that I need to focus on prevention and treatment, then I can’t move on to the branches. And If I can’t tell you about rate and rhythm, then I can’t go the specifics like the drugs that I would use for each.

Avoid having the FOMO of needing to understand little pieces of details or random facts.

Learn the trunks, big branches, or the foundation and answer those questions first to understand the goal of asking the next questions or the small branches and leaves.

I’ve talked about the Q&A or Q&E method in more detail. Check out this video below:

Remember that the goal of using the Tree Method is to break down the topic and know which individual lessons you need to learn first.  Doing it in a Q&A format guides you through the flow even better.

The more you review, and with the use of color coding or flashcards, the better you’ll remember and learn. You’ll feel like you’re learning for fun without the pressure. 

Now, if you enjoyed learning about the Tree Method, go ahead and give it a shot! Let me know the comments section how it works for you.

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If you made it to the end and enjoyed this article, then you will also enjoy these other articles:

 As always, thank you so much for being part of our journey. Hopefully, we’re a little help to you!

Until the next time, my friend…

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