Active Learning

Often I find myself finishing a book without remembering much of what I have read. The gist of the argument is apparent to me, but its nuances and particulars elude me. If asked what it was about I would be able to contrive a response that seemed meaningful, but it would be sketchy and laced with misunderstandings. The truth is that I usually understand little and have read the book from cover to cover aimlessly. Of course, this misses the point. While fiction can be read purely for pleasure, non-fiction is generally read with a view to assimilating information. The point is to understand something by it.

Reading alone cannot achieve this because we are passively receiving the information and no real thinking is being done. It is only when we actively learn that information can be assimilated in a way that is memorable. Whether this means writing down your convictions about the matter, or speaking on the topic, the information must be used in some way before it is understood deeply enough to be remembered. But for most of us this seems too long a process to be worth our time or effort. Nevertheless, where we would read and reread to no effect we can instead write notes in the margins or take down summaries, and in this way actually save our time.

The cone of experience or more appropriately, its myth, is shown above. While it is peddled on many educational websites as being an accurate representation of how much we retain from different activities, its creator admitted that the figures are arbitrary and that the point of the cone is to show the deepening levels of abstraction, and in this way show a continuum. This is to say that the further we move down the cone the deeper we take our understanding. The statistics themselves are without evidence, but seek to demonstrate the extent to which we abstract and use the idea in question. While reading the idea is being used at a superficial level whereas during a presentation it is being applied at a deeper conceptual level. This is obvious enough, in order to be able to expound on a subject we must at some level grasp the concepts at play. In other words, to learn anything deeply we must move from using it passively through reading, hearing and seeing to actively learning through writing and speaking.

The course of action then suggests itself; we must prefer active learning to passive incomprehension. While some of us feel we lack the time even to read, let alone to do so slowly and critically, it makes little sense to read a book without learning its contents. Solely reading and later finding that you have forgotten what you just finished suggests that you have wasted your time and effort. This is not to say that reading gives us nothing, but that if we want to remember the information it is unsuited to this end if we go no further. For the best understanding to be developed it is prudent to read and either take notes or highlight key points. Admittedly, I have always felt heartburn at the prospect of writing in my books, feeling that this somehow damages them. All the same, a book’s value lies in what you can get from it and the means employed to extract this information is of no consequence if it is successful. What do we read books for after all, if not for understanding their content?