A Waste of Learning Space?


One of the most common issues I come across whilst coaching professionals in enhanced Learning Skills is a tendency to create copious volumes of notes. As a learning technique, it’s counter-productive and quickly overloads the brain.

There is another way.

Voluminous note-taking is a technique I often used before I learned how the human brain receives, stores and recalls information. Like many others, I would make detailed notes, brighten them up with judicious use of highlighter pens, realise that there was still too much information to learn and proceed to make notes of my notes. I think I expected the act of writing and rewriting to embed the knowledge for me.

In the end my brain would jump up and down and protest, insisting it was an impossible task and why can’t we take a break and go for a coffee.

It seems that there are two common drivers for this route to tortuous revision;

  • We’re taught at school that using too much paper is wasteful (and these days leads to global warming). We’re encouraged to leave as little white space as possible – it’s a visual representation that we have to ‘cram the knowledge in for exams’.
  • A more elusive driver is the fear that if it isn’t in our notes, we’ll miss that one vital piece of information which makes the difference between a Pass and a Fail. If it’s in the book, it has to be in the notes.

Paradoxically, our brain is beautifully designed to collect, store and retrieve information. We do it all day, every day. Our children are experts at it. Our brain loves learning so much that whilst we remain uninhibited by adulthood, we even call it play!

You see context is everything. We can remember pretty much unlimited amounts of information if that information has context and connections. The trouble is if we try to store more than 7 bits of information in one go, we hit overload. There are simply too many connections for us to hold in one place.

But we can store as many of these sets of 7 as we care to. If we create notes that contain only 7 pieces of information then each of those 7 can connect to 7 more, over and over again. In fact in only four layers of 7, you can effectively store over two thousand pieces of connected information in a way that your brain will be perfectly comfortable with. If you tried to cram that all into one long set of revision notes, you’d hit overload pretty damn quickly.

So if you want to create usable notes for effective learning, leave loads of white space and only have 7 key pieces of information on each page. You’ll use far more pieces of paper; but surely it’s more of a waste to write notes you’ll never learn than to write notes you’ll remember forever?

Like most core strategies, this is a simple concept but old habits can be hard to break, so if you’d like some help, get in touch. Enhanced Learning Skills are only a couple of clicks away…

Related:

Tony Burkinshaw Learning & Memory Coach: LinkedIn Profile

Tony Burkinshaw Learning & Memory Coach: Website

Study Skills

Effective connections

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2 thoughts on “A Waste of Learning Space?

  1. Reblogged this on Scribing English and commented:
    This is absolutely brilliant. Thank you So much Posts of Hypnotic Suggestion! As many students enter into the new quarter and new school year, this will be extremely helpful – and be less wasteful of paper (something I feel very guilty about on a regular schooling basis).

  2. This post is excellent. When I was an undergrad I took a ton of long, drawn out notes and used highlighters to brighten them up, as you described. And then, just as you outlined above, I’d find myself having to take notes based on my notes just so they were usable. Using a lot of white space and only covering seven points per page is genius. It’s funny because as a technical and/or content writer, I was always taught to keep paragraphs short so readers aren’t too overwhelmed to finish the piece. I never thought about how well that translates to other parts of my life (like learning)…until now. Thanks!

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