Memory GaphicSearching for something worth learning

by Matthew Leitch, 25 October 2001

A huge amount of "learning" time is actually spent searching for things worth learning. "Skimming" vaguely across pages and pages of stuff is tiring and unproductive. It is better to be surgical.

If you are learning from books, pick the best. Pick books by great writers who think and write clearly, at the level you can keep up with, and have something important and well supported to say.

When inside the book notice the contents listing and main titles and deduce what is talked about in the book. Decide where to look further and go there only. Check some more titles and notice what is talked about. (Avoid books with titles that are riddles rather than clear signals; life's too short.) Decide where to go and go just there. If needed, read the first sentences of paragraphs likely to contain what you want. Deduce what they are about and decided where to read further. It can also be useful to look at illustrations, and their captions. Do not be drawn into scanning rapidly across all words in the hope that something will jump out.

To evaluate the clarity and logic of the author notice what is being said, and what reasons are being given. It may soon be obvious that the reasons do not support the assertions at all, or not very well. It may also be unclear what is being said. I find I have to abandon most books and magazine articles for this reason.

Some materials for learning have a single structure, repeated over and over, such as a dictionary, a table of vocabulary, a chronological table, and so on. With these materials one decision of how to learn the material is all that is required and then you can settle down to memorise.

But this is rare. More often the source mixes all sorts of structures and types of content, giving you a constant problem of deciding what to learn, and how to tackle it. This is the true test of your learning skills.

Example. Fossils. The book "Fossils" by Niles Eldredge (with stunning photographs by Murray Alcosser) is a fascinating study of the evolution and extinction of species. It ranges over many topics and switches between autobiography, scientific reasoning, descriptions of the history of ideas, and so on, making it tricky to study but well worth the effort.

To get the most value out of it I have had to think for almost every paragraph and even every sentence in places, "now he's talking about the topic of X" and "the aspect of X he is talking about is Y". This is a description of the content of the material, and from this I can see what form of material it is and so how to tackle it. Sometimes it's as though I'm sieving the pages for tidbits worth committing to memory - facts, names, reasons, and so on. The author's arguments unfold rather slowly and with digressions so I have to notice things like "now he's arguing that Z, and his reasons were A, B, and C."

© 2001 Matthew Leitch