Learning Science: Demystifying Learning to Make it More Effective and Easier

This is the seventh article in a series of articles by CCCEP about the value of high-quality continuing education for pharmacy professionals, the difference it can make to their practice and careers, and the role accreditation can play in ensuring the quality of continuing education.

In our previous articles, “ Today’s Pharmacy Professional ” and “ Continuing Education 101 ”, we examined different topics related to continuing education, including its importance, the types of continuing education, delivery formats, the value of accreditation and more.

Building on these prior topics, this article focuses on the field of learning science. This scientific field can help pharmacy professionals understand their personal learning patterns, leading to an easier, more effective learning process.

Learning: A process and an outcome

The Cambridge dictionary defines learning as “the process of getting knowledge or a new skill”. 1 “Learning” is a result of neural networks’ development, ie, the connections established between neurons in the brain. 2

Vast neural networks, often described as a “mental model”, developed from thousands of hours of study and practice make a person more effective at reasoning, solving, and creating . 3.4 This insight can be extended to learnings from continuing education for pharmacy professionals. Baumgartner et al. 5 report that continuing education helps pharmacy professionals ensure professional competency, enhance practice, and provide improved patient care .

The basic steps of the learning process are as follows, each playing a unique role in accomplishing learning:

  1. Encoding

  2. Consolidation

  3. Retrieval

The following insights were derived from an article written by Thomas J. Van Hoof & Terrence J. Doyle in 2018 called Learning Science as a Potential New Source of Understanding and Improvement for Continuing Education and Continuing Professional Development . It is highly recommended to read the full article for a more detailed understanding of these insights.

Encoding: Acquiring information to the brain

Short-term memory is created when one or more of our senses perceive information, and our brain encodes it as a “memory trace”. 3 Benjamin and Tullis 6 highlight that long-term mastery is critically influenced by the quality of the initial encoding event. Hence, ‘focused-mode thinking’ 7 or ‘effortful attention’ 3 are important for encoding. Furthermore, a person has a higher chance of recalling the new information when it is encoded more elaborately during the initial exposure (ie, when the information is detailed, multifaceted, and emotional at the time of initial exposure). 8

Key Takeaways for Pharmacy Professionals: 1. Be mindful of the quality of learning, as it impacts the quality of encoding and 2. Learn information through different formats to encode it more effectively.

Consolidation: Storing information in the brain

During this phase, the brain transfers important short-term memories to long-term memories. 2.9 To become long-term memories, the important memory traces go through careful processing when the conditions are ideal (eg, quality sleep) in the neocortex part of our brain. Learning is rehearsed or replayed in the brain to give it meaning, fill in any blank spots, and make connections with past experiences and other knowledge previously stored in long-term memory. 3 Hence, sleep and other cognitive breaks are important for learning. 2

Key Takeaway for Pharmacy Professionals: Get enough sleep and other cognitive breaks to ensure long-term retention of learned information.

Retrieval: Retrieving information from the brain

As the name suggests, this process retrieves previously stored information. The retrieval process results in multiple benefits. Firstly, each time one retrieves important information it increases the potential to recall the same information in the future. 10.11 In the process, the retrieved information may associate itself with new cues based on the latest context 3 , changing the memory of stored information. Such an increase in the number of cues associated with the memory is what increases the chances of recalling stored information. 2.9 As highlighted above, the more diverse the contextual cues, the better the retrieval.

Key Takeaway for Pharmacy Professionals: Retrieve previously learned information time and again to increase long-term retention and update your memory based on the latest context.


By improving the learning process of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval, pharmacy professionals can make the most out of their continuing education to advance their practice and achieve their learning goals. In a future article, we will focus on learning strategies such as distributed learning, retrieval practice, interleaving, and more.


  1. Education [Internet]. Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press; [cited 2022 Apr 25]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english/learning
  2. Doyle T, Zakrajsek T. The New Science of Learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. 1st ed. Stylus Publishing; 2013.
  3. Brown P, Roediger III H, McDaniel M. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2014.
  4. Van Hoof T, Doyle T. Learning science as a potential new source of understanding and improvement for Continuing Education and continuing professional development. Medical Teacher. 2018;40(9):880–5. doi:10.1080/0142159x.2018.1425546
  5. Baumgartner J, Bradley C, Clark B, Janes C, Johnstone E, Rouse M, et al. Global Forum on Quality Assurance in CE/CPD: Assuring quality across boundaries. pharmacy. 2020;8(3):114-. doi:10.3390/pharmacy8030114.
  6. Benjamin A, Tullis J. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology. 2010;61(3):228–47. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.004
  7. Oakley B. A Mind for Numbers: How to excel at math and science: (even if you flunked algebra). The Penguin Group; 2014.
  8. Squire L, Kandel E. Memory: From mind to molecules. Greenwood Village (Colo.): W. H. Freeman; 2000.
  9. Carey B. How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. New York: Random House; 2014.
  10. Hebb D. The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. Wiley; 1949.
  11. Bear M, Connors B, Paradiso M. Neuroscience: Exploring the brain. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2007.