Very interesting how one can learn in different ways depending on the subject matter. To develop the skills being analytical and looking for a solution. Or retaining information such as a diagram for information that relates to a subject which would be more detailed.
Two common thinking problems are: a feeling of not being able to 'see the wood for the trees', and difficulty in being logical and orderly. The key to solving them is being able to think about ideas and information in a conceptual and systematic way so that you have ways to structure your thinking. This can involve:
looking at the broader context
developing mental models and frameworks to hang ideas and information on
being able to distinguish relative importance and seeing patterns and relationships.
The following activity is designed to help you see the power of structuring information and ideas.
Read through the following list of words one at a time, then cover it up and see how many words you can remember:
leaf, animals, Dalmatian, dogs, tree, living things, plants, mammals, oak
Now look at the words again and see if you can link them together in an order or structure. When you have done this, see how many you can remember now without looking.
Reflect on the difference this makes to understanding and making sense of the information
Were you able to recall many of the words? Did you find a way to link the words together? Did having a structure make the list easier to remember?
Below is an example of a structure.
The process of looking for a way of structuring the concepts should certainly have made you think. It is through processes like this that information is retained and recalled, and knowledge and understanding develop. Knowledge, understanding and meaning are not just there for the taking. You have to create them through your own structured thinking.
A useful way of giving sense and structure to ideas can sometimes be to see them in the form of a hierarchy. At one end is the ‘big picture’ (e.g. general context, principles, theories, ideas, concepts) and at the other end are particular facts, examples and other details. For example, the concept of living things contains the category of animals and plants. Animals contains the category of mammals, which contains the category of dogs, which contains the specific type of dog called Dalmatian. Each thing is connected to the thing before.
Looking for patterns, ways to connect things (even if they may sometimes seem apparently unconnected) and contextualising is at the heart of making sense of information and ideas.
General and particular levels of thought often give shape to written communication.
Distinguishing between generals and particulars can help you in reading, note taking and writing for your course. But, looking at things in a hierarchical general-particular way is only one approach to giving structure to ideas and information.
Other ways might be based on chronology, complexity, spatial organisation, positive and negative aspects, pros and cons, familiar and unfamiliar, from top to bottom of an organisational structure. In some cases, the component parts of something work together to form a system, for example arteries, veins and capillaries work together to form the blood circulatory system in the body.
Having a systematic step-by-step process for thinking about certain academic tasks can be particularly useful so that everything is done as efficiently as possible.
For example, the DANCE system (Rose and Nicholl, 1997) is one of many tools for solving problems.
D - Define and clarify what the problem really is (sometimes it is not initially clear). What are your goals?
A - Think of a range of alternative ways of solving the problem.
N - Narrow down the range of possible solutions to leave the best.
C - Choose the ideal solution and check what the consequences might be.
E - Effect action using the best solution.
Organising thought can be assisted greatly by the use of visual tools. These can include diagrams, mind-maps, tables, graphs, time lines, flow charts, sequence diagrams, decision trees or other visual representations.
The process of making visual representations can itself involve using and developing a range of thinking skills, particularly higher order skills. So, whether you need the resulting product or not they can be worth doing.
However, the resulting product can also provide an effective way of communicating your thinking to others. In fact, sometimes it can be very hard not to use a diagram - drawing or referring to a map, for example, makes it much easier to give directions.
Mind-mapping can be a particularly powerful visual tool for shaping thought. The basic principle here is to note down the central topic or idea in the centre of a piece of paper and work outwards adding the points which flow from and connect to it. It is particularly helpful for seeing the different levels of thought. Next is a mind-map drawn by someone planning to write an essay on memory. (Based on a mind-map by C. Barrett)
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