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Visual notes are pretty. Do they help you learn?

October 26, 2020

Read on as I put learning preferences to the test. 

I have been following the #studygrams study notes trend on Instagram and wondering if this visual note taking is just fun or if it actually helps people learn better. 

This started me thinking about how I learn best. In school, my learning process was conventional and would have looked something like this: read the assigned chapters–panic, make written notes, create point-form notes–panic,highlight key points, and memorize by talking to myself, panic, panic, panic. 

Given what we now know about the brain and learning, I feel short changed. There are so many more approaches that I did not know about. This week, I decided to take one topic and test a multi-dimensional approach to learning based on the fact that I am, what we at Skillpod call, a Q4/Q3 graphic/abstract learner with a high level of kinesthetic intelligence. 

Do you know what kind of learner you are? Take our free assessment here. 

I consume an enormous volume of information every week, as I am sure you do. Whether you are at school or working, we are all trying to keep up with global events, news, technology, new software and maybe even a hobby interest or two. At the end of the week, I get to the point where I am trapped in a snowglobe with little bits of information swirling all around me. 

The topic I chose for this experiment was understanding decision making and uncertainty. For this experiment, I decided to try a new more structured, integrated and active approach to learning. 

It looked like this:

  • Focusing exercise 
  • Time management – creating a goal and process
  • Visual note taking 
  • Summarizing learning 
  • Feynman Technique – test for understanding
  • Quizlet – create a memorization quiz for terms and definitions
  • Day dreaming – information synthesis

Time Management:

Time boxing: This approach asks you to allocate a defined time to complete the task. When the time is up, you are done.  I gave myself 2 hours to complete the task of writing this blog (this was a gross underestimation).

Result: 2 hours was unrealistic. It was enough time to consolidate my thoughts and create an outline but I needed about 2 more hours. Noted. 

Focusing exercise: the Skillpod technique is to draw an infinity symbol on a piece of paper and to trace the lines very slowly with your finger. Follow your finger with your eyes for 60 seconds. 

Result: 60 seconds is enough to get into a calm and receptive mindset. 

Pomodoro Technique: This technique requires that you set a goal for a 2 hour time block. Eliminate distractions (close email and messages and put the phone on “do not disturb”. Divide the 2 hours into 25 minute blocks with 5 minute breaks between. It is brilliant and how I get most of my work done. 

Result: Establishing a specific time management process helped keep me relaxed and kept my blood flowing. Turning off distractions and allowing the mind to focus is freeing! In the Pomodoro technique, I would use the 5 min break, to jot down pressing thoughts but otherwise I try to take this time to stretch, make a cup of tea and to let my brain relax. Imagine you are an athlete and this is your recovery time!

Visual notes

Now to the heart of this question, does making pretty notes actually help you learn? I was always a doodler but I never thought about this being a useful learning tool. For this learning experiment, I listened to a podcast and read academic papers. While doing so, I doodled and drew what I thought were important points.

Result:  I found these visual notes surprisingly useful. When I was trying to consolidate information (for the Feynman step), I would go back, in my imagination, to my page of doodles and I was able to scan the various images and read the information (no I do definitely NOT have a photographic memory). The more interesting the graphic, the better it worked.

Summarize: I like to summarize my thoughts in writing. I wrote a page to summarize what I had learned. I will soon post a blog about decision making. 

Quizlet: You may know this fun and intuitive software that create flashcards to help with memorization.

Result: I tried the free version which is limited but provides a sense of what this program can do. It was time consuming to figure out in the beginning but I can see this as being useful if you are trying to memorize concepts and definitions. 

Feynman technique: If you really understand the concepts or patterns behind the information, you should be able to explain it to a young child. 

Decision Making: To eat or not to eat the cookie.

Synthesizing with Day Dreaming

I used to use long-distance running as my way to process information but my hips don’t like that anymore. Some people might be more into daydreaming but for me, any kind of repetitive, cognitively off-line activity is like a brain massage. I love mindless, fiddly crafts, like knitting, colouring patterns and more recently lino printing which really hits the spot. All of these require intense concentration and allow my brain to defocus. I used to think of this as an indulgence but now see my need to do these kinds of tasks as a priority to help me process the huge volumes of information that I take in daily. 

Synthesizing with Sleep

No way around it. The number one best way to allow your brain to make sense of your day is to get a good dose of REM sleep. While you are sleeping, your brain is actively consolidating information and making sense of volumes of information (including emotional, experiential, cognitive and memories). Sleep is key to learning. 

Conclusion:

To answer the original question, visual notes did help me recall the information remarkably well. However, visual notes were not enough on their own to help me truly understand complex and nuanced material. Here are some tips to enhance your studygram learning when you are trying to learn something complex.

10 Steps to help you learn faster and better:

  1. Take the free learning assessment quiz plp.skillpod.ca to learn more about how you best take in information. 
  2. Carve out an appropriate amount of time for the task (time boxing)
  3. Take a minute to get into a receptive mindset with a focusing activity. 
  4. Close your email/messages/social media and set your phone to “do not disturb”.
  5. Create ONE goal for the session.
  6. Set up a timer to try the Pomodoro Technique (25min- 5min break) x 4
  7. If you are a Q3/Q4 learner, try creating visual notes for the information you are trying to master.
  8. Once complete, give yourself a 15-20 minute break.
  9. Test yourself by recalling your notes (try to visually scan them).
  10. If there is some memorization involved, try creating a Quizlet.
  11. Finally, try the Feynman technique. Prepare a short presentation (verbal, visual or written) explaining the key points, record the presentation, watch and check your notes and see if you are on the right track. 

This #studygram trend is amazing. It is beautiful and creative and oh so satisfying. Make sure that it is actually helping you! We all learn differently. Experiment to see what works best for you. Once you understand your learning preferences (plp.skillpod.ca), you will realize that you have more options than you ever thought. Maybe you have been adapting for your learning preference for years. If not, it is never too late to try something new. 

Wishing you courage and strength on your learning journey. And as a wise man once said,

 ‘Any fool can know. The point is to understand.’ –Albert Einstein