Learning about Learning

This week, on a day off from the full-time work, I took a day back at the university to attend a couple of workshops they set up for postgraduate students. I was wondering beforehand if this had been something of a luxury. Unlike my previous job, I don’t get any days off for study leave (welcome to the NHS!) anymore so all the leave I take is annual leave and I am a bit short on AL this year due to the changes in job where the dates didn’t quite line up.

So despite my reservations about whether it would be better use to sit in a library, I went to the workshops to learn with a mixed group of doctoral and post-doctoral students about learning techniques.

The first session was about speed reading, or as the tutor told us, repeatedly, better reading. He was right. Noone really teaches you how to read effectively after the first few years in primary school unless there is a specific reason or at least, that was my experience.

We started with some fun activities, testing our reading speed and the importance of understanding that memorising (as we did in reading comprehension tests at school) and understanding is vast.

In some ways, I expected a lot of what he said to be obvious, but it really wasn’t. I can say that I have a few more ideas about how I read (and have been reading) and how I can be more effective in reading through information more quickly but also making sure the notes I make about what I read are better (this might be counter intuitive about learning in a class about reading but it is what I took from it).

While I came away eager to practice new techniques, I thought that it was probably, for me, anyway more about reading efficiency than reading speed. How can I get the information I need from a text in the quickest way that ensures I remember and record (if necessary) what I have read. One of the key techniques that I want to practise is about extending my peripheral vision when I read so that I read more ‘at once’. This was something I hadn’t considered before learning about it.

The second half of the day was about mind-mapping. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it if it hadn’t followed on from the morning because the speed reading was what I had been most interested in.

I’ve tried a bit of mind-mapping, particularly on software (iThoughts if anyone is interested – I’ve tried a few and that’s my favourite) and thought if there is a ‘way’ to mindmap, it might be useful to know. I used it when I wanted to gather my ideas in a different way.

Fortunately, this is how it was presented to us. This isn’t a panacea. It won’t make you cleverer or quicker or more imaginative, but it is a tool that can help with taking notes and recording information in a clearer way. I tend to doodle a lot and make notes with lots of arrows in them, so it could be the method I didn’t realise I wanted. I hadn’t thought of mindmapping to summarise or take notes.

Having attended the course, I’d say that learning from someone who knows, is useful. I have tried any number of mindmaps since the training. The next morning, at work, I arrived and drew my day’s to do list as a mindmap (which I then had to explain to a colleague who was intrigued), it took no longer but it was visually more pleasing – although that is not the point.

What has been more useful were my brief attempts, over the weekend, to link up the speed reading and mindmapping and creating a ‘mindmap’ notes of book chapters and articles. I’ve been able to jot mini-mindmaps after chapters of a book I am reading, (have been trying to speed read!) so I remember what the key points are. I’ve used post-its or pieces of printer paper which I have then popped into the book at the required chapter or scanned and saved with the paper on Mendeley entries. For the first few I’ve done, I’ve written some more conventional notes afterwards, using the mindmaps to test if I have learnt or remembered more or at least, noted down the key useful points and I think it may work as a technique when I need to remember things I have read.

I’m still at the early stages of this. I am mindmapping everything. As we were told though, it’s often about practise and getting better at it. It may not change the way I learn and think in the long run, but it was an enjoyable session that helped me think differently. And I think it helped when I went back to work as well because this isn’t just about helping my learning at university but also at work.

Even if I don’t persist with mind-mapping as a note-taking technique, at least I know a bit more about it and why I would reject it which is a better place to be. As for the speed-reading, I can’t see any situation that won’t be useful so I’m going to continue to practice and if I do get better, I might write up more about the specific techniques. It is good to have a day out from the usual though, particularly if we are able to challenge our own thinking.

Author: Vicky

Social worker based in London

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