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Take it Easy – Learn by Osmosis

Posted in: Personal Development
Take it Easy - Learn by Osmosis

Undergrad courses teach you to learn in a specific way.

You have to cram in as much information into your brain as possible, hold it in there, then regurgitate as much of it as possible on exam day. Of course, actually understanding what you are talking about, and working from basic principles, helps but the cramming method can take you pretty far.

When you hit the lab for real and start putting this knowledge into practice, the whole thing is turned on its head. Now you need a deep understanding and feel for the theoretical and practical aspects of whatever you are working on.

So for this real life learning, I think it is important to use different strategies.

Building Core Knowledge – Hard Undergrad-style Graft

For building the core knowledge of your field, the undergrad learning model can be used to an extent. You need to read papers and books to build your core knowledge, but this must be done more as a drip-feed rather than a cramming deluge if you are ever to hold onto it for the long term.

Detailed notes are needed here, since this is core knowledge you will want to go back over it again and again until you get it right.

Building Peripheral Knowledge – By Osmosis

But there is a whole lot of peripheral information sources out there – stuff that is not core, but is invaluable because it gives your you a wider perspective, new ideas or nuggets of information.

A mistake I think a lot of people make is to try and absorb and study this information like they do for their core knowledge building. Take a classic example – seminars.

When I would go to seminars on an area not directly related to what I was doing, I still used to come out with pages and pages of notes, even though I knew I would probably never look at them again. In the seminar environment, I had gone on auto-pilot, let the old undergrad habits take over and started scribbling.

This is a bad idea, I think, for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, its a waste of precious energy to concentrate hard and scribble all of that un-needed detail down, energy that could be better used later in the lab (or wherever you like).
  • But more importantly focussing on the details makes you more likely to miss out on the bigger picture/feel of what is being explained, which is probably the most valuable thing you can from a seminar outwith your field. This is especially true if you are having trouble understanding or following what is being said.
  • And finally, there may also be some useful nuggets of information in there – hard facts or figures that could be useful to you in the future – and you might miss them if you are taking screeds of notes.

When the topic is not core to you, I think it is far better to sit back, relax and listen and learn by “osmosis” – just let it flow in. You won’t get everything, but you don’t need to. And in fact the info that you do get will stick with you longer.

Another way I have heard this put is “just listen to the music, you might not understand the notes but you will understand the tune”.

This is what I do now, and it allowed me to take a lot more from peripheral seminars (and now I don’t need to find space to store tons of unwanted notes).

Core knowledge or Peripheral Knowledge? Decide ahead of time.

So, maybe the question to ask yourself if is “what do I want to gain from going to this seminar”? if it is core knowledge, then take your notebook and scribble away.

But if it is peripheral, maybe you’d be best to sit back and listen to the music. Of course, you should take your notebook in case any useful nuggets crop up that you want to note down, but you will probably get a lot more from paying attention to the overall message and feel of what is being explained, rather than from the detail.

I have used seminars just as an example, of course. The same ideas can hold true for information discussions, journal clubs, papers and anything else you can think of. e.g. core papers you should read fully and take notes, but maybe for peripheral papers you just need to skim or even read only the abstract.

What do you think – can you learn by osmosis?

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