A Cool Trick for Learning from Lectures and Reading

I was reading around on Terrence Tao’s blog. (He has some interesting comments on the life of the mind. Since he’s a leading mathematician, I don’t get anything out of his more technical posts.) And after following some links, I found an interesting strategy for retaining information during a talk. Let me explain the strategy, and then discuss whether it can be applied to reading.

Notepad and Pencil

A Strategy for Learning During Lectures

Retaining information during lectures can be difficult. It is hard to keep focused on the speaker. And sometimes the speakers give so much information that one gets lost in the verbiage, especially if the lecture is a little above one’s expertise in the matter. So how can you get anything from the lectures?

This strategy comes from Stanford mathematician Ravi Vakil. I’ll quote from his description of it:

The theory is as follows. If you can get even three small things out of a talk, it is a successful talk. And if you can’t get even three small things out of a talk, it was not a successful experience. Note that the things you get out of a talk needn’t be the things that your neighbor got out of a talk, or the things the speaker expected you to get out of the talk.

Here is how it works. Take a clean sheet of paper, or an index card. Your goal is to have three things, and only three things, on this sheet at the end of the talk. The “things” can be of many forms….

As you watch the talk, look out for “things” you like. When one comes your way, write it down. Then later write down a second. Then write down a third. Hopefully a fourth will come your way — and then you must look over the previous three, and decide which one must be cut. A dirty secret is that you may not be able to prevent yourself from remembering the one you cut — and the ones you kept and reviewed will be more fixed in your mind.

Pretty simple, huh? It keeps you focused, but it also forces you to whittle down what you’ve heard to three simple things to remember. Less is usually more.

Too Little?

My initial reaction was that remembering three things is not enough. But imagine if you’d remembered three things from every book chapter, article, and talk you’ve heard over the past five years. Remember that you should write down three things you didn’t already know. So you would progressively learn more detailed information about the topics you are studying. (You could plug the three facts into a flash card program like Anki, and then you’d have an effortless review system for these facts.) I think this would be an excellent way to learn vast amounts about the subjects you often study. And noting only three “things” to remember would keep you learning new, important facts, rather than learning obscure facts that are not as central to your endeavors. (We autodidacts have trouble separating out imporant facts from useless facts.)

For Reading?

Is this strategy useful for reading? How can you narrow an entire book down to three facts? As I hinted earlier, I think this would be most effectively done with book chapters. A chapter is roughly the length of a lecture, I believe. So you could record three things to remember from each chapter. Or you might find it’s better to narrow each chapter down to one fact. That might be more manageable.

So I do think this would be a useful strategy for retaining important quotes, arguments, and concepts from what you’ve read.

And if the book is technical and dense, reread it and record three new “things” for each chapter. You would probably be a more effective reader through these focused rereads anyway.

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