Meet Mark Brezinski, MD, PhD.

BWH’s Mark Brezinski believes the environment in which people learn plays a major role in how well they learn.

He’s a cardiologist, research scientist in BWH Orthopedics and co-founder of LightLab Imaging, a company that pioneered the development of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) for cardiovascular disease treatment and was acquired by St. Jude Medical in 2010.

Brezinski is also a major believer in the benefits of optimizing one’s environment when it comes to learning. He’s examined what colors are the most effective and mind-stimulating (blue and green), the benefits of sunlight and fresh air (or at the very least, a window to the outside world) while studying, and the necessity of comfort.

He’s putting this insight and more into his own teaching practices, using a “reverse education approach” to train people in his lab and teach his undergraduate, graduate and junior faculty students.

But what exactly does that mean?

Instead of standing in front of a classroom and lecturing to students about quantum mechanics, Brezinski posts his course lessons online, which his students view at home—or at the library, a coffee shop or elsewhere—on iPods and iPads. They absorb the material on their own time in whatever setting they choose. Then, during classroom time, Brezinski questions his students on what they’ve learned and goes over the problems people are having, rather than spending time on the information his students have already grasped. A similar teaching approach is being tested in the K-12 public education system in California.

“The system works, and I’ve been refining it for a number of years,” said Brezinski, who teaches at Harvard, MIT and King’s College. “Less than 10 percent of all meetings and lectures are effective; people often get lost and lose focus. But with reverse education, a student has learned something in an environment that is far more productive and comfortable for him or her. It’s much more effective.”

Brezinski says that he stresses the importance of “brevity, simplicity, clarity and accuracy” in all communications from students—be they by phone, email or in person during classroom time. “This is what the world wants, from the famous ‘elevator talk’ to NIH grant proposals. My students aren’t just thinking brevity and clarity when they are writing a paper; they are practicing it all of the time, including in their responses to assigned material on their iPods and iPads.”

This type of education style is also valuable outside of the sciences and medicine, says Brezinski, who will be instructing business majors this fall. According to Brezinski, the real world necessitates self-teaching, as well as building and adapting one’s skill sets.

“My mother used to tell me that if I didn’t understand something the first 10 times to try another 10 times,” he said. “You’re ultimately going to get it. You shouldn’t feel defeat. I taught myself quantum statistics by reading the same chapter 21 times in a month and a half. Teaching people how to learn on their own and refine their ability to learn is so powerful.”

Further, learning outdoors—in environments “that are alive rather than static,” Brezinski says—opens people’s minds, allowing them to better absorb information.

A prescription for nature if ever there was one.