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Become a More Productive Learner

Become a More Productive Learner

Become a More Productive Learner

By Matt Plummer and Jo Wilson // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.


Today we consume five times more information every day than we did in 1986, an incredible amount that’s equivalent to a 174 newspapers…a day. That probably includes a lot of Instagram posts, but it’s not only social media. The corporate e-learning space has grown by nine times over the last 16 years, such that almost 80% of U.S. companies offer online training for their employees, making more information accessible to them than ever before.

One would think that this would translate into increased knowledge. Yet, unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Scores of average American adults on tests of general civic knowledge — the type of information you’d assume people would pick up from scanning through all this information — has remained almost constant for the last 80 years. On the corporate side, working professionals apply only about 15% of what they learn in many corporate training and development programs in many cases.

We’re consuming more information but not learning more. In short, we have become less productive learners.

But by applying an intentional approach to consuming information and best practices of how we learn, we can reverse this trend toward unproductive learning. Here are four ways to become a more productive learner.

Focus the majority of your information consumption on a single topic for several months. Rather than letting the headline tides pull you along, pick a topic and focus your reading and viewing on that topic. In addition to the obvious benefit of making it possible for new information to build on previously consumed information, there is another important benefit, which is anchored in how our brains work. In a recent interview neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley shared from his book, The Distracted Mind, that “the highest level of performance in this domain of working memory is dictated more so by how well you filter all the irrelevant information. If you process information around you that is irrelevant to your goals, it will create interference…. Our success at filtering that] is critical for our ability to perceive information, to remember it and then to make decisions about it.” Spreading your consumption habits too thin has real consequences.

Put what you’re learning into frameworks. Frameworks act as the internal architecture for our brains, creating “rooms” for the information we receive. The value of frameworks to learning date back to psychologist Jean Piaget, who first used the term schemas in the 1920s to describe the process of categorizing information into consistent patterns. Schemas — or frameworks — help us retain new information by associating it in a structured, repeatable way with what we already know. We know this intuitively. It’s easier to find your computer if you put it in your home office than if you put it in a roomless warehouse. 

To make this concrete, after reading this article, you could start building a framework of how to become a more productive learner. You might start with these four strategies. As you read more about the topic, you would then populate the framework you’ve created, making tweaks to your existing understanding and relating new information to what you already know.

Regularly synthesize what you have learned. To synthesize means to “to put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure.” This definition comes from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Development, which describes a hierarchy of thinking skills. The current version of the taxonomy, as revised in the 1990s, puts synthesis (renamed “creating”) at the top of this hierarchy, above five other thinking skills, including application. As a result, when you synthesize the information you’ve consumed, you can’t help but get a lot out of it.

Synthesizing is challenging because it involves making sense of the new information in light of everything you already know. It differs from summarizing in that synthesizing involves bringing your opinion to bear about what is important while summarizing is merely a brief regurgitation of the information. An easy way to practice this skill is to ask yourself: “What are my key takeaways from this article?”

Cycle between information feasting and information fasting. It’s important that you have seasons when you limit your consumption of information, so you can focus on reviewing, considering, and applying what you’ve already consumed. Remember that new information can interfere with previously acquired information. The language learning app Duolingo has found that successful language learners spend more time reviewing older material than those who drop out.

How do you know when to fast and when to feast? Duolingo recommends reviewing older material when you’re on the verge of forgetting what you’ve learned. Try to synthesize what you’ve learned about the topic of interest; if you can’t, go review it.

We don’t have to be victims to the millions of blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and even books demanding our attention but giving us little. Decide to become a productive learner, and you can actually reap the benefits of the incredible increase in the amount and accessibility of information.

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