One Technique to Improve Learning from Text

Increasingly, in today’s world, it is necessary to continually learn.  Whether reading books about real estate investing, pouring over a company’s annual report or retraining for a new job (or new position) life-long learning is moving from being an asset to a necessity.

As a long-term student (currently in my 9th years post high school and with at least a couple more years ahead of me), I’m always interested in techniques for learning faster or better.  One such technique, which I learned years ago in my first year of university, is easy to apply and has been valuable for occasions where I need to bear down and really learn some written material.

For this you’ll need a set of set of markers (of assorted colours) and a copy of the information that you’re learning that you can basically destroy (don’t do this to library books!).

Associate each color with some judgment about the text.  I use red to strike out redundant (or well understood) information, yellow to highlight information that I need to memorize (such as vocabulary when I’m getting up to speed in a new area), I write questions in blue about something I’ve read that I don’t understand, and I write in green actions I need to take to follow up on information (to ask somebody about it, look at another source, or think about later).

At this point, more than just text, it becomes a working document.  I can look at it again later, see the points in blue, and immediately know what I have to work on to understand the text (it keeps me from forgetting any of the questions I had while reading it).  When I’m planning out a day, I can scan over it and copy out the green actions and put them on my todo list.  If I’m studying, trying to memorize terms, I just focus on the yellow highlighted portions (and skip over the red parts).  As I deal with these, I strike them out in red (so if I’ve memorized a yellow-highlighted term  I strike it out, if I deal with a green action I strike it out in red) and when the text is totally red I’m done with it (and throw it away).

Beyond focusing your attention on important parts of the text for different purposes later on, I think it’s also helpful as it transforms reading from a passive activity to an active one.  I’ve often found when I’m trying to read something boring that my mind will drift as I “read” through a section (and suddenly realize I don’t remember what I just read).  When you’re reading and trying to decide “is this important to know?  do I understand it?  do I understand everything well enough to cross it out and never look at it again?” it’s pretty tough for your mind to wander and evaluating it keeps you very engaged with the material.

I’ve used this during my undergrad on course notes, and as a grad student when reading academic papers.  I’ve never actually used this on a book (it would kill me to mark up a book this way), but I should.  Books are purchased for the knowledge they contain, and absorbing that information is more important than keeping the book in pristine condition.

There is a small “silly” feeling as part of this (it feels more like colouring than working hard).  Usually with academic papers I’ll stick to two highlighter colours and a pen for making notes instead of the full range of multi-coloured markers (especially when I’m working at a coffee shop or in my shared office).

Although this may or may not work for everyone, it’s easy to try (and if it helps you learn material, why not?).

This approach certainly isn’t universally valued.  One book specifically mentions it as something that takes longer and interferes with learningCal Newport mentions this in the introduction to one of his books as an ivory tower approach to learning that doesn’t really work (although it has worked for me, so his experience isn’t universal either).

What is your favourite technique for learning new material?  Do you often use study habits from your school days (assuming you’re out of school)?If you try this out, please return and comment whether it was useful to you or not!

4 replies on “One Technique to Improve Learning from Text”

Favourite technique? After reading about a formula or concept, when I take a break (go to bed, get a snack etc) I imagine explaining it to another person–actually talk out loud to an imaginary person. I find ‘teaching’ it useful to deepening understanding of the material. Your method sounds interesting and useful for instances where a lot of background reading is required. Thanks for the tip.

After reading a section, page (or even a paragraph in a dense text), I’d turn it over and ask myself questions about it. What did I just read? How can I relate this to something I already know? How would I explain this to someone else? What types of questions can you ask about this? Then as concisely as possible I transfer that information to my cheat sheets. If I understood it well it wouldn’t make it to the cheat sheet. My cheat sheets were colour coded webs of information – and often only understandable to me. I’d end up with two or three pages of information per university course, to memorise for the exam…

I used a lot of colouring when I was in University (more than a few years ago) too. I would highlight text using different colours and write out my study notes in about 4 different colours of ink and using a variety of text styles and headings to help me break the information into chunks.

I’m a very visual learner and I wonder if these techniques would work as well for an auditory or tactile learner. I’m sure there are a few studies about that out there. Interesting post – I love the lifelong learning theme – but 9 years post secondary? What are you studying?

Leslie: I think that’s a great approach (and if you have an indulgent friend or a struggling co-student, actually explaining it to someone is *very* useful. I think many teachers say they gain new insights into material every time they teach it.

Kristina: Sounds like a good process, to force yourself to summarize what you’ve just read.

$0.02: I’m in computer science (Bachelors + Masters + 1/2 PhD = 9 years).

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