Ulrich Boser has written an interesting piece for Harvard Business Review regarding learning strategies. Boser argues that our ability to learn new skills and assimilate large amounts of new information has become very important in today's economy. We have to be lifelong learners to adapt and grow as our companies and our jobs change. Boser reviews the work of University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ross, who has conducted some fascinating research on how we learn. Boser tells the story of how Ross decided to take a computer science course. Ross chose to employ a learning strategy called self-explaining to try to master the class. Boser explains the strategy:
The approach revolves around asking oneself explanatory questions like, ”What does this mean? Why does it matter?” It really helps to ask them out loud. One study shows that people who explain ideas to themselves learn almost three times more than those who don’t. To help him outperform his younger colleagues, Ross asked himself lots of questions. He would constantly query himself as he read through the assigned texts. After each paragraph, after each sentence, he would ask himself: “What did I just read? How does that fit together? Have I come across this idea before?” By the end of the course, Ross had found that, despite his relative inexperience and unfamiliarity with computers, he could answer many questions that the other students couldn’t and understood programming in ways that they didn’t. “I sometimes had the advantage,” he told me. “I was focused on the bigger picture.”
Far too many of us continue to believe that reading and re-reading a text provides the best mechanism for digesting new material and accumulating new knowledge. We whip out our highlighter and brighten the pages of those books, thinking that these colorful additions to the text will help us remember key nuggets. It doesn't work. Recent advances in learning research show that other strategies are far more effective than reading and highlighting. These studies show that we must force ourselves to recall what we read. We have to quiz ourselves. We have to summarize and synthesize what we have heard and read. We have to do something with the information that we are trying to digest. In short, we need to be much more active in our learning strategies, rather than passively reviewing material. These strategies work well for students, but they also work well for adults on the job, as we try to develop and enhance our skills and as we take on new roles.