I recently visited a relative who was in the hospital and observed the nursing shift change.  It was quite a bit different than my past experiences with hospitals.  Each nurse had a copy of a multiple page checklist that they went through – very similar to the procedure used by pilots.   Watching the process reminded me of an article I read several years ago illustrating the use of checklists in complex work environments, specifically in health care.


Coincidentally, a few days later a colleague recommended I read the book “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande.  While reviewing the book details I realized it was written by the same person who wrote the article in the New Yorker (available here).


There are three key points in the article:


  • The knowledge required to perform complex jobs frequently exceeds an individual’s capacity to remember or their capacity to apply the knowledge in a time-constrained environment without making mistakes.
  • Despite proven success, “experts” frequently refuse to use checklists, feeling they are “beneath them” or that their jobs are too complex to reduce to a checklist.
  • Checklists help with the routine aspects of the job that are critical, but easy to forget – they do not replace critical thinking or experience.  Rather, they free the worker from the mundane allowing them to focus their mental processes on the truly unique aspects of a particular situation.


You are probably asking what this has to do with learning?  I first read Dr. Gawande’s article when we were working on CCIE learning materials.  In the 360 Learning Program for CCIE, we make frequent use of decision diagrams, which are essentially branching checklists. 


For example, here is a relatively simple decision diagram for how to assign an IP address to a router interface:


I have always been a prolific note taker when studying for an exam.  I rarely go back and review my notes – I find that the act of restating the content in my own words helps imprint the information in my memory.   Building the decision trees or checklists works even better for me.  Building a simple chart like this requires you to reflect more deeply on the content you are trying to learn so that you can represent it in a completely different way.  This helps you to move from simple memorization to true understanding.  Creating these diagrams typically also requires that you actively interact with equipment to identify all the possible options.  This interaction is deliberate practice, which is also a proven technique for imprinting knowledge.


The first few times you try to build a diagram it may seem tedious, but if you stick with it I think you will find it becomes much easier with practice.  And hopefully the investment in deliberate practice will help to accelerate your learning curve.