How to Get More Out of Professional Reading

An Active Learning Hack

If you go to church—and I’ll admit, I don’t much—you’re familiar with a common process.  A pastor or rabbi or theologian presents a passage, say from the New Testament, then centers the entire discussion on that one passage.  “What does Matthew means when he says….?”  He deconstructs it, analyzes, links it to current circumstances.  In a word, he teaches.  He uses the device of studying a passage to teach or persuade or entertain.  But, mostly to teach.

 As audience members we usually sit back and passively absorb the teaching. At least I’d guess that’s all most of us do.  If we think about it, we might be conscious of the device, how the teacher uses the analysis of a passage to influence us.

But, what I find interesting is how the process influences the teacher.  In preparing the lesson, the teacher becomes a learner.  By studying and reflecting and deconstructing a passage, the teacher comes to understand the lesson.  It’s the process of actively engaging the material that helps the learner truly learns.  In preparing that sermon or session, the teacher learned as much about the lesson as he or she did when originally going through the lesson as a student.  


Create Summaries

I once read (and, ironically, I forget where) that the best way for students to grasp new material, after, say, reading a chapter from a textbook, is to immediately write out a summary of what they just read.  No doubt this works.  It’s amazing how often we think we understand something, but, when we go to explain it, to recreate it, we find ourselves struggling. Importantly, it’s the process itself— the active effort to recall and recreate the lesson—that helps you cement the lesson. [As a footnote, this basic concept underpins retrieval & reinforcement systems.  Reference  Ebbinghaus’ well-known Forgetting Curve.]  

 I’ve started doing this with certain books: summarizing key points in writing. It’s dorky, I admit, but, it does help. Enormously. People who come into my office always ask the same thing “Have you really read all of these books?”  I have—most of them at least.  But, I have to admit that while I’ve read them, and understood them (at least so I think), what I retain is a mere fraction.  (And what I act on is a fraction of that mere fraction, but, that’s another story.)  In any case, I came to regret the dismal fact that so much of the great ideas that I loved reading seeped away, simply disappeared.  And, predictably, the denser more powerfully packed books—just the stuff I want to retain—is the stuff that’s hardest to retain. So I decided to try an active learning tactic and write out notes.   

 First, I read the book through, underlining key passages.  I then go back through the book and draft notes on what i just read. Summarize key points, rephrase the author’s message in my own words, add related thoughts.   If I’m stuck, I’ll start by just copying (quoting) directly. Invariably, the process of typing gets me thinking about the material.  And then I’m off….reflecting, analyzing, building on the material.  I’ve found that through this method I’ve come to master some books, some topics in amazing depth.  I love professional reading.  And I love it more now since I  I’m getting more than the simple enjoyment during the process.  Now it’s a true learning experience.  By adding another hour or so I’m getting massively better returns on the time invested in reading.  

 There’s another benefit to this activity.  You practice writing.  And, you experience the integrative relationship between thinking and writing.  You use writing to communicate a given thought and the act of writing spurs new thought.  


“Explain to Learn” 

It dawned on us, a while back, that surely this same process can work with oral versus written notes.  Instead of writing out a summary, speak.  Say it out loud.   If you’ve even been cold-called in class—and who hasn’t suffered this?—then you know that when you’re put on the spot, it can be deceptively difficult to articulate a thought, even with material you were convinced you had down pat.  

We devised exercises using our video training platform that allow just this.  Explain to Learn.  We present a given topic, and then simply prompt the learner to “explain” the concept aloud on camera.  In the process, the learner simultaneously masters the material and practices elocution. It’s a powerful exercise. Not all material or situations lend themselves to writing out summaries.  The process of writing itself may be daunting.  Speaking may be easier.  And, of course, there may be advantages to practicing articulation.  

In any case, whether writing or speaking, the act of recapturing and reflecting on material is a powerful way to learn.  Theologians have been using the device for centuries, thousands of years.  It works—on multiple levels.  As both the old masters and today's teachers would say “If you can’t explain it, you don’t know it.”  


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