Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

That is a good book which is opened with expectation, and closed with delight and profit.
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), American Educator, Social Reformer

Learning to Better Use Information

I Methodically Explore Sources of Information

Quality learning relies first and foremost on accurate and detailed information. Reasoning with incomplete data results in misinterpretation and faulty knowledge. Methodical exploration consists of systematically collecting data. In university, this strategy applies mainly to library research, Internet research, reading and note taking. It consists of reflecting upon the most appropriate method for gathering information necessary to building my knowledge in the specific contexts of each course: written assignments, research, complementary reading, exam preparation, etc.

Beneficial Attitudes

Curiosity, critical thinking, tolerance of uncertainty, questioning preconceived ideas, attraction to the unknown, taste for risk, sense of humor, perseverance and self-confidence are the attitudes that will benefit my discovery of meaning and learning.

Methodical Exploration, Stress and Impulsivity

In emergency situations or when important matters are at stake, acute stress prompts me to explore impulsively. This impulsivity has noxious effects on my information perception and retention, by my omission of important data or by my faulty memorization. the ingrained habit of properly planning and systematically conducting my exploration activities is the best antidote of all.

Methodical Exploration and Concentration

Precise and comprehensive exploration requires that I be vigilant in my quick detection of omissions, mistakes or lack of precision. In methodically reading a text, for example, I will be careful to not skip over important information, to detect and resolve ambiguities in language, to determine the nuances and subtleties in the author’s ideas and to evaluate my degree of understanding. 

Methodical Exploration, Organization and Memorization

To learn is to retain and retain in such a way that I can apply what I learn when the occasion arises. Here again, the quality of my exploration method benefits not only the recording, but also the long-term retention and retrieval of my knowledge.

Some advantages inherent to the methodical exploration of information sources:

  • Obtaining precise, complete and valid information on a topic.
  • Assuring myself that no essential information has escaped my investigation.

 I am Precise, Complete and I Select the Essential

The Paradox of Being Precise, Complete Yet Selective

To be precise and complete is to perceive all and in detail.  To select is to choose.  the quality of selection depends on the precision and exhaustivity of the data exploration. By pre-determining the level of precision and exhaustivity required, I am more able to select pertinent information. the time I spend on this reflection will be largely regained later on in the treatment of the information. For example, in taking the time to clarify my reading purpose, I know in advance what I am looking for. I concentrate my efforts and reading time, my understanding and memorization of the parts of the text that are important for attaining my objectives. This can only improve my performance: reduced effort, saved time, better understanding and retention.

Observing In A Precise and Complete Way

Within the framework of university-level studies, precise and complete reading refers to seizing the author’s nuances, subtleties and thoughts, following their reasoning and examining the value of their arguments. Within the framework of documentary research, it is assuring me that I have all information and that the information is sufficient and precise before starting to select the most pertinent to my project. Within the framework of a professional intervention, it is finding the most complete and precise information possible before interpreting and diagnosing a client’s case. Within the framework of writing exams, the understanding of what answer is expected calls for precision and exhaustivity in my observations of the statements and listening to the instructions.

Selecting Important Information

Selecting pertinent information involves keeping some and rejecting other. For example, bold characters, italics, underlining or framing certain words and sentences in an educational manual serves to attract the reader’s attention and to give an indication of importance that the author accorded to these elements. It is one form of selection by hierarchization. But all good texts are also texts in which superfluous information and useless digressions have been purged and the level of precision and detail has been selected according to the public for which the text was destined. It is a form of selection by elimination.

Precise and Complete Observation and Understanding

Precise and complete observation of available information is a necessary condition (but not sufficient) to understanding. the more my observation is erratic, vague and partial, the greater the risk of my misinterpretation and misunderstanding. My brain dislikes vague messages and its capacities for imagination will fill in the gaps. This remarkable property is both an asset (creativity) and weakness (perceptive illusions, interpretation errors and hallucinations).

Selection and Selective Attention

Selective attention facilitates understanding by reducing the volume of information that my working memory has to simultaneously process. This selection can be definitive or temporary. For example, when a study text is complex, rich in new information and difficult to understand, I can start by grasping the main ideas, concentrating on one part at a time, and pulling out the essential in the form of a succinct resume. then, I progressively continue through the text in successive stages and finally return to the text as a whole to better integrate and assimilate all parts.

Information Selection and Memorization

Reducing the information to memorize to keywords in a written format (resumes, flash cards) or visual format (schemas, cognitive maps, diagrams, tables), significantly facilitates my interiorization work and retrieval of information stored in my memory long-term. By reducing the volume and arranging it into a network of keywords, I increase my capacity to retrieve this information when in out-of-school situations: problem-solving, professional applications, cultural heritage, etc.

Some advantages inherent to processing data in a precise, complete and selective way:

  • Avoiding my coming back to the same information several times.
  • Ensuring that no important detail has been omitted.
  • Ensuring my proper understanding.
  • Avoiding errors of interpretation.
  • Facilitating the memorization of important information.

I Compare Similarities and Differences

This strategy allows for drawing out much more information by observing things comparatively, rather than observing them separately, even in a precise and complete way. Within the framework of university studies, the comparison of similarities and differences between concepts, theories and authors is particularly pertinent, given that the advances in scientific fields are largely attributed to this comparison of ideas.

Comparison and Selection of Pertinent Information

A methodical comparison consists of comparing several realities, concepts, authors, theories, approaches, solutions, etc., on the basis of carefully selected relevant criteria. the concept of intelligence, for instance, has given rise to a multitude of opposite, complementary or unrelated statements. A comparative table of the most characteristic positions and representative authors help to give me a better idea of the richness and complexity of a particular concept.

Comparison and Perception of Sets and Subsets

An efficient comparison is done part by part, element by element. It is supported by a preliminary analysis of the components of the subject being studied.

Some advantages inherent to comparing differences and similarities:

  • Avoiding confusion between notions that appear similar.
  • Avoiding confusion of closely related formulas (statistics, accounting, etc.).
  • Having a better perception of the commonalities of different notions.
  • Facilitating classification work using sets and subsets.

I Perceive and Classify Information by Sets and Subsets

An object, even a simple one, is made up of a set of simple components and elements, some of which are concrete and others are abstract. A tennis ball, for instance, displays a set of perceptual features (matter, shape, texture, color, and dimension), physical properties (elasticity, resistance, bounce), variety of uses (tennis, squash, massage) and ethnological characteristics (history, user, manufacturer). Most of these characteristics can be broken down into simpler elements (for example, the typical user’s age, sex, socio-economic environment, nationality and personality characteristic). the analysis of any manufactured object, even familiar and banal objects, reveals a multitude of things about the culture and technology of the civilization that produced it.

Beneath the diversity and disorder of appearances, lies organization. In professional life, for example scientific research, the analysis of the underlying workings of organization is indispensable to the deep understanding of objects, phenomena and systems. the analysis of the diverse components allows for the discovery of all elements that make up the object being studied, through the identification of their relationships, detection of the flaws and planning of corrective measures.

Courses Are Organized Like A Set of Boxes Used To Classify Knowledge and Ideas

Each university discipline is like systematized research in the understanding of a facet of physical and human reality. Each discipline is made up of a multitude of fields and sub-fields and each field of study is broken down into various streams of thought, points of view, theories and practical applications and each point of view often has its own concepts. Each course is also divided into large sections, which are in-turn divided into parts and themes. To have a global overview of my discipline and the material of which it is composed, as well as the role that each course plays within the discipline, helps me to make sense of my learning. the perception of the different sections, parts, orientations, themes or problems within a course, facilitates my perception of the relationships that exist between them. It also facilitates my understanding of the whole. Finally, the perception of the role played by each concept and theory within each larger part of the course facilitates my selection and my hierarchization of information and especially, facilitates my memorization.

Perception of Sets and Subsets and Methodical Observation

My perception of the various components of an object, phenomenon, subject material, problem and text must rely on a complete and precise observation of all available information. their grouping and classification by sets and subsets must in turn rely on the analysis of their relationships, comparison of their relative significance and the selection of the most significant. the more complex a phenomenon is that I am studying, the more systematic and methodical my observation must be.

Set and Subset Classification and Information Selection

This strategy consists of sorting selected information into sets and subsets, according to an order and classification system that facilitates their understanding and use. the reflective effort I exercise in order to find the best way to sort this information according to my purpose generally helps me to build my knowledge.

All knowledge does not have the same value. All course material is made up of some fundamental and some secondary problems, theories and concepts. these essential components are “drowned” (in the eye of the novice, at least) in a flood of explanations, facts, illustrations and critical considerations. therefore, it is in my interest to decipher the message and separate the essential elements before reorganizing and classifying them.

Some advantages inherent to perceiving and classifying my information in sets and subsets:

  • Feeling less confused by the overwhelming volume of incoming data.
  • Facilitating my understanding of what I observe, read and learn.
  • More easily acquiring and better retaining important information.
  • Retrieving the information I need, more quickly.

I Look for Links between Information and I Interpret them with Care

the Search For Links, Understanding and Anticipation

Understanding a new situation or solving a problem, is like a puzzle. the more complex they get, the more methodically I need to proceed. the resolution depends on my perspicacity. It is a matter of attitudes and strategies: methodical observation, questioning, searching for links, hypotheses, verification.

While in daily life I have learned to muddle through in relatively familiar and recurrent situations, university studies and professional life frequently presents new and complex problems. the search for and perception of visible and virtual links, real and potential, as well as the detection of missing elements of information are indispensable conditions to a nearly correct interpretation.


Interpreting consists of deriving a meaning from a set of incongruous information. I do this quite naturally. But an accurate interpretation is essential to producing suitable answers. Errors in interpretation can be the source of important setbacks. Interpreting an event always includes a certain level of uncertainty. This mental operation involves past knowledge, beliefs and logical and pragmatic inferences. therefore, there are many potential sources of error: error in reasoning, insufficient knowledge, erroneous preconceptions or false beliefs. To these sources of error we can add incomplete observation and initial imprecise data.

When I realize that I do not understand something, I either give up or take on the challenge and continue my search. If, for example, while I’m reading, I lose the meaning of what I have read, I will use one or more strategies to reestablish my understanding: I continue reading in the hope that the next lines will clarify things for me, I go back and try to find the exact meaning of a concept or sentence, I reinterpret an ambiguous passage, I ask for help, etc.

It is more when I think that I understand, but in reality I do not, that thing get tough. We have a natural tendency to jump to conclusions, often too quickly and to our disadvantage. Judging from appearances, settling for the first explanation available, limiting ourselves to one aspect of a situation, exaggerating certain parts to the detriment of others, giving a relation of cause and effect to that which is coincidental are all very common interpretation errors. they are sources of serious perceptual distortion and misunderstanding.

That is why it is preferable that I be wary of spontaneous interpretations, challenge appearances, remain vigilant, maintain my critical thinking and take the necessary step back. I am particularly vulnerable to perceptual distortion in situations where I have a deep emotional involvement. I must never lose sight of the fact that my perception is likely to be biased by my beliefs, prejudices, values, expectations, memories and personal motives. Without my knowing, these factors often affect the way I interpret situations, phenomena, events and individuals.

Advantages inherent to looking for links between information and interpreting them with care:

  • Facilitating my understanding of the situation.
  • Giving meaning to what, at first glance, seems meaningless.
  • Avoiding misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

Applications to University Studies

Applications to Documentary Research

Documentary research is often the starting point of assignments. I must be vigilant while I conduct my research to prevent my missing the most valuable sources of information about my topic. By methodically exploring bibliographical repertoires, periodical indexes and databases, I am guaranteed of sufficiently complete and precise information. In my first year of university I should invest in the creation of a list of documentary tools that best corresponds with my orientation: a list of key word descriptors that are frequently used in my field of interest, a list of the main reviews and periodicals, a list of principle authors with reference to their most notable publications, as well as references to specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias. Knowing that these documentary tools will be useful to me not only for my studies, but equally later in my professional life, it is worth investing the time now and important that I conserve this bank of tools so that it is both long lasting and expandable. By entering this data into my computer, I will be able to keep and modify it at will. This will also allow me to save a great deal of time in the composition of bibliographies for later assignments.

Applications to Course Note Taking

Taking course notes serves many purposes. For courses that are unpublished innovations with no handouts available, my notes are indispensable to my learning. In courses where there already is a textbook and numerous references, note taking completes these references with complementary explanations, examples and clarifications. Note taking also helps me to stay focused on the material during class. Note taking techniques are diverse, but the underlying strategic principles are the same.

Taking precise and complete notes: lectures provide me with information, knowledge, explanations and examples that complement my text-reading and study. they also give an indication of what teachers find important (after all, teachers do define evaluation criteria). Consequently, it is in my best interest to take notes that are as precise and complete as possible.

Restricting note taking to keywords: to increase the efficiency of my notes and at the same time prevent wrist fatigue, it is not necessary or desirable to write, what is being said, word for word. I simply need to use keywords that I can understand when I read my notes.

Using a uniform note taking system: my use of a predetermined note taking system allows me to take more and better notes while concentrating on the importance and role of each word, rather than concentrating on writing word for word. I can, for example, bring out a new concept, theoretical statement, hypothesis, opinion, argument, demonstration, example or fact using notes in the margins, codes, symbols or color. I save time, and writing fewer pages makes essential content more visible. the part of my attention required for writing decreases and my listening attention increases. 

Applications to Reading

It is easy to be swamped by information, articles and publications. therefore, it is in my best interest to develop efficient reading strategies.

Choosing a reading strategy adapted to my purpose: previewing the text allows me to quickly define the difficulty, complexity, richness and interest of a text. Depending on whether I need to read the text for a course, exam preparation, or to write an assignment, my reading method, number of passages to read attentively and the volume of information to retain may vary substantially. It is recommended to first read the introduction (to learn the author’s intent), then read the conclusion (where I generally find what the author considers as essential in his text), before starting my thorough read. Depending on the structure of the text, it is not always necessary to start from the beginning. I can, for example, start with the parts that I find easy or more interesting.

Previewing strategy: the goal of this strategy is to select the passages to read thoroughly and the order in which to read them. This strategy consists of examining a very limited quantity of information about an article, chapter or complete book. If my purpose is to evaluate the pertinence of a text in preparation for an essay or presentation, previewing will allow me to identify the nature of the text (popularization, thesis, introductory, specific research, recension, meta-analysis, brief, etc.) and determine which parts deal with my topic and how (orientation). the previewing strategy consists of identifying the author, date of publication, table of contents (book) or abstract (article), orientation (introduction and conclusion). This strategy helps me to quickly decide which texts to read thoroughly and which to skip. It also allows me to decide which text I should read first. Most scientific fields regularly publish books that summarize a domain and do a synthesis of the most recent research initiatives, discuss problem issues and bring out gray zones. the publication date is therefore important. Furthermore, each field of research is influenced by several recognized authors, who are important to identify so that my study can be supported by the works of authors who are considered as authorities in their field. By starting my study of a subject with works that are more general, synthesizing and recent, I will more quickly have an overall view of my subject, which will allow me to more quickly define it and narrow down my later readings to those that thoroughly cover the research aspects that most interest me.
At the very beginning of a semester, previewing the structure and content of my textbooks (if any) gives me an overall picture of the material to study. Browsing through the table of contents, chapter and section titles, subtitles and various tables or illustrations, facilitates my reading planning, organization of my note taking and the conception of efficient memory tools.

Breaking down the text for better analysis: a text is an organized whole. In order to understand it well, I must disassemble it, component by component. Each part, each paragraph, each sentence has a specific function and role. I can begin the study of the text by finding the links, starting with titles and subtitles, headings and subheadings, finding relationships between and within paragraphs, structure markers (firstly, first of all, then, etc.) and relationship markers (on the contrary, furthermore, in addition, however, etc.). these markers indicate links between ideas, facts, and arguments and underline nuances. therefore, I must pay close attention to these words if I want to ensure my precise and exact understanding of what is stated. 

Several techniques facilitate text analysis: annotations in the margins of structure markers (numbers, arrows) facilitate my perception of the text structure. the titling of paragraphs emphasizes the main idea of each paragraph, helps me to follow the flow of the text and summarize lengthy blocks of text without having to re-read them.

Selecting keywords and statements to retain: the goal of word and statement selection is to reduce the information that corresponds with my reading purpose, to a minimum. A frequent error is to underline as we read a text for the first time. It is absurd to select words or sentences before having a sufficient global understanding of the paragraph and the section into which the paragraph fits.

Several selection techniques serve to draw the reader’s attention to important key points only: main notions and statements. their function is to prepare and orient my second read to these pertinent points, thus a gain in efficiency.

A well known but often over or misused technique is underlining words or text passages. This technique is useful only to the extent that it draws my attention to a limited volume of essential information that is necessary to understanding the text and pertinent to my personal project. I should restrict the use of this technique (for example, 10% to 15% of the text) in order to abridge the time for re-reading and to reduce the required memory effort. If the words or passages I select are key elements, they will be enough for me to reconstruct the meaning of the text. But if I underline too many words or passages (50% of the text and more), the technique loses its interest. I may as well re-read the whole text again.

Which information is preferable to emphasize? Fundamental concepts inherent to the domain (one word), the statement of the main idea in each paragraph (one sentence or sentence part), a theoretical statement, a fact, formula or important numerical information, the names of leading authors, etc. the text’s guiding idea, the author’s resume and conclusion are other key passages that I should eventually frame in order to stress their specific function within the text as a whole.

Developing my own reading notes: this strategy consists of solely extracting the text elements that I will require for such things as writing an essay, doing a summary, preparing a presentation or studying for an exam. Writing reading-notes has the advantage of condensing important information into a practical and compact format. This transfer operation also has the advantage of adding a complementary information-processing practice. Writing, in itself, forces me to further reflect upon my understanding (in-depth thinking) and my objective.

these notes should be complete enough so that I can avoid having to return to the original text, unless I need to return to validate specific points. they take time to write but in the long run, allow me to save time when it comes to writing my assignments and preparing for exams. Depending on the needs, these notes can take a variety of forms: the summary of one text or several, quotations, text structure, list of concepts and their definitions, theoretical statements, copy of a model, schema or table. A practical note taking technique is summary sheets: summary sheets are visually coherent recto only, single sheets of well spaced information. For maximum efficiency and flexibility, summary sheets must be mobile (I can photocopy them, move them or file them in another folder as needed) and they should be titled (I can see the content and reference at a glance).

A computer is a remarkable tool for note taking and notes management, as it stores all information in one place in a very succinct and rapidly accessible format. Computers enable me to save time on rewriting and allow me to enrich and modify my notes at any time.

Elaborating comparison tables: methodical comparison helps differentiate data that appears similar thus minimizing potential confusion and group’s data that has common points. the comparison of theoretical positions, element-by-element, helps me to shed light on specific points where these positions diverge. Setting up comparative tables proves to be an excellent method for visualizing similarities and differences between concepts, theories, formulas, etc. It makes data encoding and memory retrieval in the long-term much easier than a separate study of each element.

Applications to Exam Preparation and Writing

Creating summary sheets and mnemonics represents a very powerful means for the memorization of a given subject matter. This material helps me to review for subsequent exams because it covers a reduced volume of the most essential information, which is structured in such a way that my recall of the material is made easier, particularly in cases of stressful situations, such as writing exams.

All exams, regardless of the discipline, are made up of statements: instructions, essay questions, multiple choice questions, comments, statements of problems, case studies, etc. It is in my best interests to take the time required to carefully and methodically read them before I start to answer them. This single resolution has a tranquillizing effect on me and reduces my tendency towards impulsivity. I can immediately start to draft the elements of my response that spring to mind. the time spent on this attentive reading is often time saved in the long run, in that I avoid errors of statement interpretation and I strictly stick to what is asked of me.

the writing procedure for essay exams is the same as that for term assignments, except that it spans a much shorter period of time and is more demanding on my memory. there are typical response plans that exist for the type of question asked.  they can be found in the multitudes of works that discuss communication. With this type of plan in mind, I can easily draft the major points of my essay, anticipate the necessary content development and quickly move to writing my answer, once these main ideas and links have been sketched out.


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