I like the polar bear game. The game is simple: don’t think about polar bears. First person to do so loses.
It’s mostly a gag because it’s impossible to play. Trying not to think about polar bears causes you to think about polar bears and you lose.
The lesson of the polar bear game is that controlling what you think about is difficult. Worse, its often not something you can influence directly. Telling yourself to focus when reading a book or listening to a lecture doesn’t help much.
The solution is to use orienting tasks. Orienting tasks are actions that you can do, deliberately, which cause you to think about whatever you’re learning in a useful way. Since we remember what we think about, a carefully chosen orienting task can lead to far more efficient learning.
A classic study for orienting tasks was done in 1969 by Thomas Hyde and James Jenkins. Participants were divided into two groups plus a control. Each group was asked to read a list of words which they later were quizzed on. The two groups were instructed to use different orienting tasks to process the words:
- The first group was told to pay attention to whether each word contained the letter ‘e’ or not.
- The second group was told to pay attention to whether each word was pleasant or not.
After the quiz was completed, the second group scored twice as high as the first group.
Why did the second group score better? Well thinking about pleasantness forces you to think about the words differently than if you merely examine their spelling. Because pleasantness forces you to recall meaning, you process the text at a different level and thus remember it better.
Interestingly, this effect was observed regardless of whether the participants were informed of the later quiz. It seems that it didn’t matter much how motivated the students were to remember the information, they remembered more with a good orienting task.
The Keyword Mnemonic
Another orienting task that works well is called the keyword mnemonic. Take a foreign vocabulary word (say chavirer, in French). Take the English translation (in this case, to capsize). Form an image out of what the foreign word sounds like (chavirer -> shave ear). Form and image out of the English word (a canoe flipping over). Finally merge the images together in your mind (an ear, shaving, flipping over in a canoe).
Part of the reason this works is that images are easier to remember than abstract information. But another reason is that using the technique forces you to orient your thinking towards what words sound like. Normally we’re interested in meaning, but when learning a new language, we’re interested in matching a sound to an idea.
Why Highlighting is a Bad Idea
What’s the best way to read a book? If we look through the perspective of orienting tasks, the answer is clear: whichever way causes us to spend the majority of our time thinking about the content we want to remember.
This suggests highlighting isn’t too efficient. Why? Because when you highlight you’re not thinking about meaning and connections—you’re thinking about which words are bolded and which sentences stick out. It’s possible to highlight without thinking deeply, so it doesn’t provide any constraints.
A better orienting task would be to paraphrase or ask yourself questions. Paraphrasing is hard to do without thinking about the material somewhat. Asking yourself questions also forces you to think about the material in a way similar to how you might be tested.
How Should You Take Notes?
When learning from lectures, seminars or videos, the same rule applies. How can you create a task which causes you to spend the majority of your time thinking about the content you want to remember?
One way is to make connections. One of my favorite notetaking techniques is to take sparser notes, but draw connections between what the speaker is saying and other concepts or my own experience. This method works particularly well for classes which discuss abstract ideas, since it allows you to repeatedly ground those ideas in examples and analogies.
Another way is simply to not allow yourself any verbatim copying. Everything must be in your own words. That way you can’t enter into lecture hypnosis, copying down things furiously without mentally engaging any of them.
Mental Engagement is the First Priority
If you want to study more efficiently, improving the quality of the time you sit in classes or in front of books should be one of the first attack paths.
You can improve the quality of the time by adopting the mindset that your goal is not to read pages or transcribe notes, but to be mentally engaged with the content. Creating documents for later review is secondary. Thinking about what is actually being discussed comes first.
Too often I see students making beautiful, verbatim notes from a class, but not really understanding what is being said. I would prefer to take notes that are a little messier and imperfect, but orient me towards thinking about what is being said.
Designing Your Own Orienting Tasks
Once you understand the principle behind orienting tasks, you can play around with your own. The idea is to create a task that you can mentally perform. That means it can’t be a polar bear game of paradoxical impossibility.
Things like: paraphrasing, analogizing, question making, making connections, creating examples, diagramming, creating mental pictures and imagining practical uses are orienting tasks. Things like “focusing on the main ideas” or “listening carefully” aren’t.
When you try out a new orienting task, reflect on what you ended up focusing on during the class. Did you spend your time thinking about the material in a way conducive to how you’ll use it later? Or did you frequently enter a hypnosis where you realize you weren’t paying close attention to what mattered?
Good orienting tasks require you to think about the content in a useful way in order to proceed. I prefer paraphrasing to verbatim notes because the latter can be done automatically, the former requires thinking about the ideas first. If there are no constraints, it’s not a good orienting task.
Good orienting tasks also balance the needs of the task with the cognitive demands of the class. Making analogies is a great orienting task—provided you can still keep up with the class while listening. If the class is too difficult or too fast, you may need a less demanding orienting task so you can keep up with the pace.
A good orienting task can be powerful. It works indirectly, so you can avoid the paradox of avoiding distractions by telling yourself not to be distracted. More importantly it can provide constraints which assure you that you’re processing the material and not just letting it pass over you.