Building vs. telling
The best learning is when you dig into something new. You actively engage with it. This is known as the “knowledge-building” approach. The opposite is simply going over and over it until you can repeat it perfectly, known as “knowledge-telling”.
Think of a parrot. Imagine it can say a variety of English words. Even if it has a large vocabulary, you wouldn't say the parrot speaks English. That's because the parrot doesn't know the meaning, the nuance, or the use of its vocabulary. A parrot is unable to do knowledge-building, even though it might be able to do knowledge-telling.
On the other hand, a child will ask why. Children will spend time on a topic. Generally speaking, kids are great at knowledge-building.
Knowledge-telling is quicker, but you’ll also forget the material more quickly. On the other hand, by spending more time studying something, you can have perfect control over it and remember it for much, much longer.
There are a variety of techniques you can use in knowledge-building.
- Summarize it. Distilling a longer text into a couple of sentences forces you to find the core meaning.
- Asking questions of the material will help you see what more there is to learn.
- Making connections between different parts of the material, or between it and something else, will let you see it from different angles and perhaps see something you didn’t before.
Learn by teaching
Another effective way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. You need to know the material well to be able to explain it. Even if you think you know it completely, the other person might ask you a question you haven’t thought about before, so you have to explore it further to find the answer.
That often happens to teachers—it’s commonly said that a teacher learns as much from the student as the student learns from the teacher.
So use the knowledge-building approach whenever you can. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the material and never forget it.