Learning to Learn, Part I

More and more people are talking on the Web about the basic, yet the most important stuff: Is managing e-mail is worth your time? What should you use the Web for? What’s really important in life? Along those lines, here are notes about how to learn—as I’ve seen it.
“Learning” is about a whole lot of things, sure. It’s as big as life. But specifically about courseware, presentation, online videos and such, it’s about focusing, effective reading, and... let’s see what we come up with.

Decide what you’re doing.
Perhaps you don’t need to read everything?
Perhaps you need to spend much more time on this one topic?
Are you trying to get done with it or are you trying to learn?

Attitude is everything, even when you’re learning.

Distractions are a-plenty.
Avoiding distractions is obviously the most important thing when you’re trying to learn. Still, some distractions can be constructive—maybe as a break, maybe to generate new ideas. As long as you do want to learn something, you’ll know what’s a “distraction” and what’s not.

Don’t always go with the flow.
As we go along something—a Wikipedia article, a technical video—some things grab our attention. (“Hmm, that’s something I thought about yesterday.”) Pause. Allow yourself to develop the idea a little. Then come back. You’ll probably find that such “thought branching” can be constructive, even if it doesn’t lead to anything right then.

Note down — mentally, on paper, or on screen — random ideas that come to you. Note down questions you come up with as you go along. This can actually help you get into the topic.

It helps to start with a mental overview.
When you write, you start with an overview: the intro, the matter, the conclusion. But not everyone does that when they’re reading (or learning by any other means).

Instructional designers know how important learning objectives are. If your material isn’t structured, make up your own “learning objectives” at the start, as in: What am I hoping/expecting to learn from this?

Compare and contrast.
If you’re trying to understand something—like when you’ve been reading the same line a few times to see what it’s saying—compare it with something you read a few minutes ago. Too often, structured material assumes the connections between pieces of information, which means you’ll find bits and pieces here and there that don’t seem to make sense. (They did make sense to the person who wrote them.)

Let your takeaways be yours.

You’ve been listening for 25 minutes

The presentation/lesson/video ends

You ask yourself what you’ve learnt

And you try to recap what the guy said.


Don’t.

Assuming you’ve paid attention,

What you have understood

Is your takeaway.


At the end, ask what’s missing.
When you’re done with a session, think: What did I set off trying to learn/understand? What did I expect this would be? What did I think it would contain?

This kind of reflection can make you go further into the topic later on. Even better, it can frame the current material into a useful perspective.