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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Alternative methods of learning textual material

Some people can absorb information from books by reading them straight through. I cannot – if I simply read a textbook, the information goes in one eye and out the other.

What I have found however is that there are some alternative ways of approaching textual material that do make it stick in my brain. See if one of them works for you.

  • By drawing pictures (visual learning). When confronted with a long or complex text, I often like to create a simple 1-page diagram/infographic showing the main points. Personally, a mind-map of words isn't good enough for me – it has to have some pictures: a silhouette, a hand, a star, whatever. Making this “cheat sheet” imprints the gist of the text on my mind.
  • By discussion. This doesn't happen very often for me, but when I am able to get into a group discussion of a chapter of a book, the ideas really stick in my head. Also, hearing the interpretations of others gives me new insights and sometimes corrects my own interpretations.
  • By examples (inductive learning). Sometimes you are in a class or meeting and the teacher is speaking in abstract terms and you don't get it. Ask the teacher for an example – examples often clarify things. Maybe you're an inductive learner like me and really benefit from concrete examples.
  • By reading aloud. This one doesn't always work for me (especially if the text is long), but sometimes reading a passage aloud can clarify it. Use in small doses.
  • By abridgment. This is my new favourite way to absorb textual material. Basically, abridging a book by selecting a key sentence from each chapter. You don't have to write anything new – you're just selecting existing content. You end up with a nice half-page overview of the book; and in the process of selecting and discarding material, you gain familiarity with it. For example, it took me a little over an hour to abridge the 600-page Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation.

If you're faced with learning an especially long or tedious book, try one of the above alternative ways for getting the information into your head. They lay the groundwork for a more detailed reading of the text.


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