Distract and learn


I have a problem with this book. The problem may be that it was written by a couple guys who know exactly what they’re talking about; that they have planned just how and when to answer questions they think the reader will ask; and that I’m expected to learn half the material in this class from a book. However, learning to me starts with not knowing what I’m reading about, continues with me challenging the author, and often ends with me not learning much from the book alone. Perhaps I don’t necessarily have a problem with this book, rather I have a problem with books as a standalone resource for learning and not incorporating the networked nature of information such as internet.

Is it any wonder, then, that I’m typing this essay, reading the textbook in pdf format, and researching via Google? While writing these first hundred-or-so words, I did many things other than type on this page: I glanced through the first section of the book, checked the grammar standards for semicolon-separated series, and read a Wikipedia page on Dada. All these actions indirectly reinforced my knowledge on the subject of memory; indirectly as in all that effort eventually yielded this essay on the subject. Why then, do textbooks invariably seem to intend for their information to be encapsulated in an ink drill intended for my retinas and thus enter the memory models described? Textbooks do chunk their material according to the narrative, or chapter, to reinforce the short-term capture of information. However, they don’t allow the mind to wander, or associate with ideas perhaps not directly related to the material presented. What if the reader fails to get the chunks?

I frequently learn better when I’m in a particular situation that requires many separate processes, allowing this contextual or semantic encoding to store into long-lasting procedural memory. Couple this with listening to music, which I frequently do, and it’s like the 1959 Peterson and Peterson study[1]. When I’m just at my computer reading textbooks, with few other conscious processes occurring, this method does not apply quite the same. Instead, I try to challenge everything I focus on, forcing myself to see something in context other than on the page facing me, because my mind is starving despite the author feeding me information to be stored as declarative memory. Only at the end of the chapter do I get the “Food for Thought” questions. Why so late? What if the questions were also asked at the beginning of the chapter so I could ruminate on the questions like cud while I learn more from what the author wants to tell me?

These food for thought questions don’t function well on their own, though. Instead, there could be general questions or challenges about the content of the entire chapter asked in the introduction section, and then more questions at the beginning and end of each section, much like this essay. While the author narrates in the paragraphs, there could be citations to suggested readings or hyperlinks to initiate a Wikipedia dive[2] into a tangential rabbit hole. This chaotic, informal learning method can be helpful for those of us who pay more attention and learn more easily by association and investigation than by rote memorization or just being a good reader.

Although, if it’s important to stay on-topic, as chapter five was dedicated to memory, then should there be some demarcation around related information? If I were to have typed this essay for digital publication, instead of the printed requirement, I would have included links to interesting sites and perhaps even created a system to organize related material for every sentence that ended with a question mark. Perhaps links to in-scope concepts would be colored blue and out-of-scope concepts colored red. Would you learn differently if this were merely an overview from which you ziplined down every question into a jungle of information below? Try choosing your own adventure, and allow yourself to be distracted to focus and learn.


1. http://step.psy.cmu.edu/articles/PetersonPeterson.pdf

2. http://news.cnet.com/8301-27076_3-10315483-248.html