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:

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Dancing to someone else’s tune

I love my job.
That’s something I feel very fortunate to be able to say and in no small part that’s down to leaping that leap of faith and trusting there was a path out there. Somewhere.
It took a bit of finding but thanks to multiple strands weaving their magic carpet threads, I found the right combination of both circumstance and people.
Here I am.
I’m on a train returning from the City, with a day of one to one coaching successfully done and more to come tomorrow. There’s a lot to cover in 2 days and the material’s dry enough at the best of times. So with an exam to top it all off on Wednesday, the pressure is firmly on my client. Top bloke by the way.
According to those in the know, including him, I’ve done well to keep him engaged for the full day. Apparently that’s a pretty difficult task. It’s a good job no-one told me, I might have found it difficult too, just to carry on the tradition.
The trick is to provide as much of that engagement in a language that reflects the soundtrack of his world, not mine. After all, I already know it, so what’s the point of regurgitating tricky information in a way that only makes sense to me?
The clues were everywhere. Office decor, his demeanor, the way he spoke, the language he used. The signed music posters, guitar cases and desktop PC speakers were the final  confirmation, as if confirmation were needed.
Introduce the source material so the theme plays out loud and clear. One sound bite at a time. Check that he hears what’s said and it sounds OK to him. Does it ring true? Can he replay it back to me? Only bring in the new layers of information when he can work it in harmony with what he’s already heard.
In short, whereas I would have painted the detail that fits into the picture, (if you see what I mean), I listened to what he was hearing and once I’d found the right notes, we danced the day to his tune.

Be mindful of what you know.

Progress can be frustrating.

Not in an anti-technological tirade of how humanity is losing touch kind of way, although there’s some merit in that sentiment, more that the progress I know will have been made at some point in the not too distant future has not yet been made by this moment, now. There’s a lot to be said for mindfulness and let’s face it, I’ve said some of and will shortly be saying even more if you get the October issue of Only Peterborough but when you know something ought to be happening but has yet to come to fruition, I think it’s fair to say that progress is, well, frustrating.

A case in point. Learning to learn, that middle road of enlightenment in my journey, is being well received verbally but hasn’t gained traction. Yet. I absolutely know that it will. Without question. It is such a vital aspect of today’s education and qualification system that is missing perhaps because so many of tomorrow’s adults are being taught by so few of yesterday’s children, overseen and over-tasked by the politically inspired so that it is all but impossible to teach any of them how to learn.

After all if Albert of E=MC2 fame defined education as ‘…what is left when one has forgotten all one was taught at school’ then this is hardly a new phenomenon.

We’re all led to believe that proving we know what we know is vital to our progress so that we never really see the end of that road filled with yet another qualification. Fortunately in the UK there is a small move towards accommodating the fact that we learn differently because there’s been a mini return to apprenticeships, catering much better for those who’s preferred style of learning is intensely practical. People who need to move, touch, feel, manipulate and, yes, hit it hard with a hammer in order to learn. People who do things; real things; who make things, repair things. Vital work but insufficiently recognised as vital because it lacks the more highly prized academic badge.

Even here though, there is a need for written proof.Study days. College attendance. Exams and course work. I find myself believing that this is more of a political employment statistics manoeuvre than an understanding of the learning environment. Maybe I’m just a cynic.

Whatever you found you could deal with last time around educationally speaking, there is, somewhere in your future, yet another exam. More study. Usually at a time when you’re trying to hold down and progress a career and have far less time to devote to learning.

In a pressure situation we tend to revert to type. So unless you’ve been lucky and found a new route through the quagmire, you do what you’ve always done. Just harder and for longer and with less free time to give it. In essence, we all study and learn using the techniques we picked up to do homework and tests when we were in our early teens. Often these were learned by accident or if by design, by the design of someone we trusted. We learned to learn the way that our parents or favourite teacher had themselves learned to learned.

We find ourselves sailing in wrong direction, putting up more sails and fighting the wind because we think it will get us there quicker. Instead we drown in the storm of things we can’t remember and don’t understand.

For many this is enough to get by. For a few, it is exactly right for them, the born sailors so to speak. For a significant minority it hardly works at all and they disengage with education, believing that in some way it is their inadequacy. Not a bit of it. The system, entirely because it is a system, let them down. It simply doesn’t have the capacity in its current form to deal with individual learning needs at that level.

It could do. Absolutely it could do. All it needs to do is to recognise the benefit of teaching individuals how they themselves like to learn. Coach them in developing that skill and how to apply this new-found skill to anything they wanted to learn. Anything.

The educators themselves would require a pretty good heads up on what’s going on too. Recall that age-old cry of teachers? ‘Stop looking out of the window! The answer’s not out there!’ Well for some particularly visual learners, that’s exactly where the answer is. Not in reality but in their internal visual recall field. Actually looking in that direction might be exactly where they need to look to allow their memory to ‘see’ the information they are trying to recall. Forcing them to ‘not look’ is the same as asking what’s on page 43 of a book you haven’t got. You’ve effectively blinded their ability to recall.

If the teacher/trainer knew what they were doing, they’d move that student so that his or her visual recall field was at the front of the room. That way, the answers are somehow ‘there’ even as they were asked the question. The student finds themselves already ‘looking’ at the answer whilst still being asked the question. Imagine the confidence that would build. Instead of embarrassment and failure.

This skill, or lack of it gets carried through into adult life where the insistence on written proof continues. Qualifications abound. I sit here at the age of 53, difficult thought it is to believe and my alter ego, the Chartered Financial Advisor is heading off over the next three weeks to train a variety of already qualified Financial chaps (a multi-gender term these days) to even greater levels of prowess helping them achieve the ‘coveted’ Chartered status themselves.

Consider how much time it would save if for the next exam you had to take you could study and revise in a way that, whilst not effortless, would really engage you. Demonstrate results quickly. Prove to you which parts you already knew and which you needed to revise a little more. Focus your attention. In a style such that once you had learned, you would remember. Even after the exam itself was passed long ago (pun intended), you would still remember the information.

Imagine how much less stressful it would be to know that you would learn and recall over 80% of everything you would need to know for your exam. Especially since most exams which rely on recall, that unprompted recollection and application required of the written answer, have pass marks around 55%-65%. Those which rely on recognition, multi-choice to you and me, have much higher pass marks but if you have 80% unprompted recall, your ability to recognise and choose from four or more options is vastly greater. In essence, you are being asked to recognise the right answer, not recall the right answer. Multi-choice is, quite frankly, simple when you know that you know. When you revise for recall, recognition is a walk in the park.

It’s much easier to dedicate time to something when there are tangible results you can see and it just screams out to you that you really have learnt it. (Did you see what I did there? Hands up if it made sense and it sounds as though I’ve got it all covered? (Heard it all before? I did it again… and so on in infinite loop…so I’ll cease and desist before it crumbles)). Apologies if that didn’t make sense. It will once you’re in the know.

So there’s a need for learning-to-learn at every level. In every walk of life. At every age.

I find it frustrating that educators and training departments aren’t biting my hand off. The sales training of my relative youth tells me that there’s more to it than this but I lack marketing experience and drive. Whilst teaching people how they learn is important to me,  I’m not about to try to lead the UK education and qualification system out of the darkness and into the light. I’m more interested in creating change one person at a time. Which is slow to gain traction. Frustrating.

However, I do know that this will work. The future is out there, waiting.

Despite my current work with mindfulness, appreciating the reality of the moment, I find that I am brought up short wondering why that Future doesn’t get off its arse and do something. Now.

 

Learning coach, and Mindfulness

Where to next?
© Tony Burkinshaw 2013

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