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Reading with Purpose

I don’t know about you, but as a Life Coach, I find myself on a constant and steep learning curve – studying books and articles all the time, watching YouTube videos and participating in Online Courses. And it seems that the more I study, the less knowledge I retain.

It’s made me realise how difficult it is for me to actually retain the knowledge that I have read, and how much time I am wasting by just reading but not learning. How can I capture the insights and related references so I can recall them when needed?

So with that in mind I have tried to research what I can do to build the discipline to read purposefully.

The starting point for this journey has been the book “Make It Stick. (Brown, Peter C.)”. This has made me realise that my approach to learning – something that I guess I learned while at school some 50-odd years ago, is very wrong:

“It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference. People commonly believe that if you expose yourself to something enough times—say, a textbook passage or a set of terms from an eighth-grade biology class—you can burn it into memory. Not so. Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

The core of the “make it stick” concept is to use techniques and habits to:

  1. help the transfer of learnings from short-term memory into long-term memory, (so you actually learn) and…

  2. train in the retrieval of learnings from long term memory (so you can access what you learn).

“One of the best habits a learner can instil in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know. It comes down to the simple but no less profound truth that effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability. This single fact—that our intellectual abilities are not fixed from birth but are, to a considerable degree, ours to shape—is a resounding answer to the nagging voice that too often asks us “Why bother?” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”.

Throughout the book Peter reinforces the point that retrieval must be “effortful” – that the practice of retrieving the knowledge as the basis for learning requires some effort, some hard work:

“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval. After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, because delayed retrieval requires more effort.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

These techniques and habits are somehow interwoven as the process of retrieval is fundamental to the process of storing into long-term memory. In summary:

  • Make a conscious effort to recognise what you are reading for leisure and when you are reading for a purpose (eg: to learn), and in the latter case be prepared to invest extra effort to make the learning stick.

  • Practice reflection, using different techniques or situations to force yourself to retrieve the learning, for example by creating tests for yourself or describing the learning to another person (I use my wife for this).

  • Create context for the learning, enlarging existing mental models you may have to encompass the new learning with cues from prior learning.

  • Space out your retrieval exercises – practice retrieving what you have learned learning later the same day, later in the week, after a few weeks etc.

  • Look for principles behind the learning that you can then relate to similar principles in different contexts – enlarging your mental models across a set of shared principles.

“Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

At a practical level, if you need to improve your purposeful reading skills, try these simple steps:

  • Start a list of learning resources to keep track of learning resources as you discover them – books, podcasts, videos etc that you discover or that people recommend to you that may help your growth journey.

  • At the start of each month, consider which learning resources you intend to work with in that month and add these to your monthly plan.

  • As the end of each day, put some time aside to note down insights and key learnings that you have noticed and that you would like to develop into long-term memory. As you do this, reflect on the “mental models” that this learning shares with previous experiences you have had – to enlarge your mental map of the world in such a way that it includes also this new learning.

  • At the end of each week, set aside an hour or two to review the week’s insights and create "self-test questions" for each insight or key learning that you will use to test yourself wi at the end of the month.

  • At the end of each month, use these test questions from the previous weeks to test your memory and in doing this, help move these learnings from short-term to long-term memory.

“The good news is that we now know of simple and practical strategies that anybody can use, at any point in life, to learn better and remember longer: various forms of retrieval practice, such as low-stakes quizzing and self-testing, spacing out practice, interleaving the practice of different but related topics or skills, trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution, distilling the underlying principles or rules that differentiate types of problems, and so on.” Brown, Peter C. “Make It Stick.”

An additional resource you may find useful is the Self-testing: Student tip sheet – a free resource from the web site, a “resource to help teachers understand how students learn and use that knowledge to inform their teaching.”


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