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What to write down when you’re reading to learn (acesounderglass.com)
298 points by luu 60 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

>The single most helpful thing in figuring out what to write down was noticing when my reading was slowing down (...)

> If I have one piece of advice, it’s “learn to recognize the subtle drag of something requiring your attention.”

This really resonated with me, but perhaps not in the exact same way as the author. I've recently become more consciously aware of how I react when reading more complex text or parsing more complex points.

I read along at a fairly constant speed, not having much trouble following the author's mental model. But at some point the complexity seems to grow beyond what I can comfortably hold in my head without stopping and really trying to parse what's on the page in front of me.

I can react to this difficulty in two ways:

1. I let the inertia carry me past the sentence, not really grokking it, instead it becomes a sort of buzz in my mental model (or a 'drag' in the author's words), something like step 2 in south park's famous step 1: do something - step 2: ??? - step 3: profit. I continue on with the text, but now my understanding of it is compromised.

2. I recognize what I'm doing, stop reading, and start re-reading the sentence much more slowly. Look at the surrounding text for illuminating context (sometimes this snag isn't because it's an overly complex point, it's just a poorly structured sentence and the next line clears it up). I may need to start taking notes to parse it.

My problem is I'm quite lazy (and I'm usually reading in bed to relax) and tend to default to strategy 1. But I'm trying to change that bad habit and react with strategy 2.

Maybe we're using different words for the same thing. But I've found that when I get "stuck" like that, it's because I'm trying to fit too much into my working memory, and I start losing track of it and am unable to recall parts of it, leading to confusion.

So I do what you say, except it's much more deliberate than just "slow down" and "re-read". I try to break the concepts down into chunks, and focus on being able to recall specific things about each chunk. First I convince myself that each chunk makes sense in isolation, and then what its "contract" is (how it interacts with related concepts and fits into the bigger picture). When I can easily recall both of those in a coherent way, I'm ready to move on. I use a variety of ways to practice recall, depending on whatever's most ergonomic (Anki, study sheet, deliberate practice, etc.). Sometimes I find that I lack enough understanding of other concepts to really understand a chunk, so I have to go recursively do the same thing for other concepts.

So I see it as more of a memory problem and not "understanding". I don't really know what "understanding" means, to me it's all just memory--memorizing why something is true/makes sense (by relating it to stuff I already know/memorized), and then memorizing how that thing fits into other contexts. If I can't load that stuff quickly into my working memory, then I don't "understand" it.

It's a different phenomena.

I experience the running out of RAM problem that you describe as well and take basically the same approach to you. That's much closer to how I read code.

My issue really is just a tendency to keep reading even if I didn't actually parse the sentence properly. It seems to be a complexity threshold rather than a volume one.

I think it's just what happens when I try to read a text at the top of, or beyond, my reading level. I imagine that anyone who struggled in school with reading comprehension may have a similar experience, or perhaps its like that feeling when you read a garden path sentence[1].

I struggled to even recognize that I was facing this issue because I found reading very easy during school. Facing a text that was too difficult to instantly parse and understand was rare enough that I never had to develop the mental tools to deal with it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden-path_sentence

It may seem weird, but I think I've always dealt with this by not bookmarking the page I've ended on when I stop reading. I find it next time by skipping the stuff I understand, and stopping when things are unfamiliar and/or confusing. I find a night of sleep (or some significant time away) to be a good way to passively consolidate what I've read so far.

This has devolved to reading the same section over and over again a few times, but I think that's usually because the author made a logical leap that I had a problem with, or simply that I wasn't as interested in the subject as I thought I was.

That's a really smart trick, it reminds me of trying to learn a musical piece and getting really proficient at the parts that come just before a section I struggle with because I play them the most often.

It’s only a bad habit if you don’t go back later and make sure you grok it.

Reading through can give you an understand of the larger picture of what the author is saying which can help you when you go back and re-read the part that you stumbled on. This might be especially true if you feel like it’s a point where it’s gotten too unwieldy or complex. That may be a sign you don’t yet have the necessary basis or metaphor for the idea as presented.

There definitely seems to be a balancing act between:

* stopping all progress until you fully understand the point

* continue moving forward so you don't get stuck and give up

Interestingly I've found that leaning towards 'just keep going' seems to be more effective when learning a second language. Whereas slowing down and doing some background reading helps much more with technical topics.

Language seems much more natural to learn from pure exposure. So easy a baby can do it :)

This was my experience learning music theory. So much of the reference material tries to describe the motion of notes while not providing any visuals. I guess that works for a lot of people, but I didn't really get stuff like chords and scales and the relationship between them until I spent years painting notes out on a scale-snapped MIDI roll.

I still can't make sense of what they're talking about half the time despite being on the other side of it, regularly using concepts they try to explain, but I let my inability to follow that way of explaining be a road block to learning-by-doing for way too long.

See also: math. I thought I was bad at it! It turns out the books in school and the teachers just didn't teach it in a way I could follow. It's a weird inversion of my usual problem. For most things, I learn best with text and illustration and struggle to follow videos. For math, I can't follow text and most illustrations might as well be blank, but videos work. It's the same with music: I made most of my progress from watching videos.

I would implore anyone who thinks they're "bad at math" or they "can't learn to make music", or anything they struggle with, to skip the ways they've tried in the past and go at it from another angle. There are so many angles. So many.

Yes! Very true. I found that I get distracted easily when reading, stopping at an unfamiliar term/concept, looking it up, possibly taking notes, annnddd then not really getting back to what I was reading.

Now, I read differently, where I _read to finish_; I try to minimize the time-to-big-picture.

Ive found reading with a pen or pencil to be helpful. I also sometimes prematurely seek out an answer to some piece of text that’s expounded on a few lines later. So my recipe now is, open book (or whatever), write the date and time, read the table of contents, read through and annotate, write questions and answers in the margins, and get to the other cover quickly; each time I pick up the text I read over something I previously noted (in fifo order). These second passes are slow, the first pass continues at the same speed.

Interestingly, there is a lot of good advice on this in various writings on learning to read Latin fluently. Word order is very free due to the language's inflected nature, and of course, vocabulary requires constant attention.

The most highly regarded advice to breaking through into fluency is to break the habit of re-reading just as you get into trouble, or breaking off to look up a word. Instead, push through to the end of the sentence, holding as much of it in your head as possible, and being ready to re-interpret any chunks (phrases or clauses) that might admit of more than one interpretation. When you've reached the end of the sentence, consider what you think was meant by it. Only then, go back and re-read the sentence. In some cases, it may be necessary to read more than a single sentence together.

At any rate, I think a lot of people agree with your observation.

Sometimes, though, it is important to keep going until you hit the wall and then go back to the first point that started to get hazy.

Often, knowing the direction the author is going to go helps in understanding why the author explains something a certain way.

Congrats on your progress w metacognition. Seriously, it's a profoundly powerful tool.

The best information on this topic I’ve come across is contained in Mortimer Adler’s “How to read a book”.

Highly recommended if you’re doing any non-fiction reading.

Here [0] you can find a decent summary of the book. For me the single most important point that the book taught me was that it's ok to write in books, they don't have to be in pristine condition without any text in them. The white pages in books are meant specifically to write on. They explain this point of the book in a separate blog post [1] for some reason. Anyway... I never used to write in books, now this has become a central part of my learning process. The physical act of scribbling a question mark next to unclear parts, rephrasing what is meant and so on has helped me understand complex material faster as well as made it easier to refer to at a later point (as there is no need to worry about any notes getting lost).

[0] https://fs.blog/how-to-read-a-book/ [1] https://fs.blog/2015/01/marginalia/

Do you know of any android app that I can take notes of what is on the screen?


Take a screenshot/copy text. Paste in any email client. Hit send.

I have a preconfigured default bcc address so never have to (mis)type email address.

There's Microsoft Onenote and Google's Keep Notes.

You can screenshot and share to the app or copy ¬» paste » append notes/ comments

I always used to tell myself "You can never be sure you've really understood something until you try to recreate it". It started from my university days when I noticed that stuff I read and thought "yeah I got this" later turned out to be anything but, when I had to do it without the textbook at hand. Since then, I've always kept the habit. There's literally a pen and notepad two inches to the right of my keyboard. There is also a terminal open always, where I can do this:

  $ learned
    > about Walder's law: the bulk of discussion on programming language 
    > design centers on syntax (which, for purposes of the argument, is 
    > considered a solved problem), as opposed to semantics.
That's an actual example from two days ago. "learned" is just a shell script:

  read text
  echo -e "\n$text" >> ~/Dropbox/writing/notes/learned.txt
As you can see it auto syncs to dropbox.

That’s a really simple but great idea. Thank you for that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned something while working but have been too lazy to find my notes and figure out which note to put it in. And so I never end up making a note of it in the first place.

The answer depends on what you're trying to learn and for what purpose, as it will dictate what learning strategies you utilize.

For example, if you're studying to retain information for educational purposes (and reproduce in an exam environment) then research has indicated that reading and rereading have the lowest utility (return on time invested) in the 10 common strategies used by students. The strategy offering the highest utility was practice testing under exam conditions.

If you are reading to learn about a topic that requires you to retain information in a sequential manner, then using learning techniques such as a memory palace can be helpful. This is a technique that allows you to picture a room you know very well and associate blocks of information with objects in that room while you are learning. It's a very common way to deal with performance anxiety which manifests as blank memory.

I'm happy to share some thoughts on potential approaches if you offer some clarity on what your desired outcome is.

In my case, I have found using an SRS like Anki helps me the most. - Forces me to break down what I need or want to learn into small digestible pieces (in the form of question/answer, or a cloze deletion). - Fast and easy to add to Anki which means I don't lose context and can continue reading easily. - The nature of SRS means I will remember this later on.

Thanks for previously posting that link to the 10 strategies in your reply below!

Is there a list of those 10 common strategies? Just out of curiosity.

Yes, there is. This is an informal article discussing the strategies: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky...

And this is the more formal research: https://pcl.sitehost.iu.edu/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovi...

What if you are learning something for work - say advanced computer networking (reading textbooks, papers etc) - how would you approach this?

What is the purpose of learning? It is memorization for a test at work or will you be able to keep notes close to you while working? If you can add some detail I'll be able to give a suggestion.

The purpose of learning is for my own education (and for a tangential benefit at work). I will be able to keep notes with me. Thankfully I am way past the point where I have to sit in examinations.

First round of reading about a topic I don't write down anything because of flow-problems the author mentioned. It also helps with getting a view beyond the horizon. Then I try to write a good summary. Writing something really helps with memorizing. Curiously, I think the effect is much weaker when typing something on a machine.

Rereading my summary gives me an impression of how well I understood a topic. If it is just incoherent rumblings, I probably should revisit the topics in question. So it can also be a good self test.

Such an iterative approach takes time though...

I’m wondering how people find the time for that during college courses. Mine always moved at a pace where read throughs were in direct competition with the homework.

> I mentioned “losing flow” as a cost of note taking in my opening, but I’m not actually convinced that’s a cost. Breaking flow also means breaking the author’s hold on you and thinking for yourself

this is the best writing about reading I've read recently

"Write down anything taking up mental RAM" is the sagest advice

And this seems like a place where (at least at some point) getting the notes into a place like org-mode where they could be assigned appropriate labels could be useful: something taking up mental RAM might not be fully tied to the thing you're reading.

My principle: "Instead of taking notes from ideas contained in a book, take notes of the ideas _you_ get when reading a book"

> Writing down a thing you’ve read (/heard/etc) improves your memory and understanding, at the cost of disrupting the flow of reading.

Flow disruption, in the case of self-paced learning, is likely a good thing, even though it feels like it's slowing you down. Even though it _is_ slowing you down. The act of getting back into the flow requires some level of retrieval from long term memory, and retrieval is practice at remembering. So anything that helps you practice remembering what you just read is useful, and anything that helps you read more pages per hour but does nothing to change how much you remember per hour is wasteful.


Seriously. I read a lot and I would completely drown if I was taking notes of anything that I am interested with. The only thing I really want to note is my own index system where I have a document with keywords and list of links, books, documents, other resources where I have seen this thing. Rarely a small note -- once I find the reference I am usually able to recall what the reference was about.

I have two types of reference stores.

1. My global index. This is one bag of huge amount of keywords and links. The storage works like this: I enter the reference (which is basically any free text, usually a link). I enter a number of words, terms I might be trying to look it up in the future, name of context I am researching this reference for (for example name of project I am working on atm). Later when I don't remember the reference I may be able to recall I have worked on some particular project and use the name of the project to help me find the reference.

2. My project index. This is typically a document listing design/decision details I made for a particular project with references to materials. For example, I might have decided to use a particular board component and then have a reference to digikey/mouser part, reference to specs, reference to any number of designs I found on the internet that include the part, etc.

Write down anything that seemed surprising or otherwise non-obvious on first reading. Even better: rewrite the surprising parts in your own words, once you have understood them, in a way that clearly explains to you that which you originally found puzzling, with enough context that you will get the point when you re-read your notes (note that this helps even if you never re-read these notes, because the act of paraphrasing is helpful on its own.)

Does anyone use LCD drawing tablets for taking notes? I don't like using paper that much, and for anything important I prefer to have it digitized so that information can be sorted, copied, and recalled. I wonder how important it is to be able to come back to those notes, or if simply writing them down and never coming back to them would be enough.

In that case, a "dumb" LCD writing pad such as the Boogie Board would be enough. I'm not sure if I want to hassle with a more expensive and complex system such as a drawing tablet, which would be an alternative.

Check out the amazing https://remarkable.com It is a bit on the expensive side of things, but seems great. (I don't have one yet)

Notes on reading are like writing: embrace brevity. There is a difference between intesting and essential. Too much noise will only dilute the important bits.

To be totally honest, I have two separate note taking forms. One when I'm reading the first time through, which I could almost certainly not refer to in any form, as they are scribbled down and unintelligible. The second (and often on my second reading), I have much less comprehension from the reading, I'm taking notes to refer to.

So you immerse and get the idea while skipping on the details and then you address the details. I will try this. I find that I usually go full force, get the idea then rarely come back to notes if I take any. It’s a bad habit that makes me a very poor communicator because I missing the labels. If I undwrstand something thoroughly that can form a metaphor, I can play with it in my head which kindof helps cement the idea.

Similarly, for programming I understand comcepts better by playing with some code rather than dryly following line by line on the text. I think it depends on the book, I found myself reading form SICP without much interruption. It’s a certain pace that I enjoy

> Write down anything that’s taking up mental RAM, whether it seems related or interesting or not. If you find you’re doing this a lot, consider you might have a secret goal you don’t know about.

Basically I do the same using Kindle, with the plus of getting everything on my email after, for reviewing.

> it’s much better if my sense of “this is important, record it” corresponds with what is actually important. The real question here is “Important to what?”

This is my Aha! moment.

There was mention of an online book/site which was about writing every thing that is going on in your head. Does anyone has reference to it?

I think its the best way to learn

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