Sense-making Skills

The most difficult part of personal knowledge mastery is developing a sense-making routine. A recent academic paper from the Association for Psychological Science examined various methods to improve learning.

In this monograph, we discuss 10 learning techniques in detail and offer recommendations about their relative utility. We selected techniques that were expected to be relatively easy to use and hence could be adopted by many students. Also, some techniques (e.g., highlighting and rereading) were selected because students report relying heavily on them, which makes it especially important to examine how well they work. The techniques include elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, summarization, highlighting (or underlining), the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, rereading, practice testing, distributed practice, and interleaved practice. – Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques

This paper was summarized at in an article entitled The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn! which is how I came across it.

Of these 10 activities, focused on academic success in learning from formal instruction, there are a few that are pertinent to PKM. Three of the low utility methods are those that I see used by many people, in blogs or other social media – Summarisation; Highlighting; Imagery. Examples include the use of tools like without any annotation or comments, or re-tweeting to the exclusion of adding any additional insight. Low utility activities alone are like only Seeking & Sharing, with minimal sense-making (follow link for a detailed explanation). But there are two sense-making activities that would fit well with a personal professional development discipline like PKM – Elaborative Interrogation & Self-explanation

Elaborative learning is useful for proficient learners because it allows them to apply their prior knowledge effectively to process new information. It is rated as effective because it is time efficient and relatively easy to perform …

[Self-explanation] involves explaining and recording how one solves or understands problems as they work and giving reasons for choices that are made. This was found to be more effective if done while learning as opposed to after learning. – Neurobonkers


Source: Dave Pollard

Elaborative learning relies on observing, studying, challenging (especially one’s assumptions), and evaluating these, which is part of critical thinking. Dave Pollard has a good description of this process in more detail. Synthesizing information is combined with drawing inferences, forming tentative opinions, and challenging arguments. Critical thinking – the questioning of underlying assumptions, including our own – is becoming all-important as we have to make our own way in the network era. Critical thinking can be looked at as four main activities:

  • Observing and studying our fields
  • Participating in professional communities
  • Building tentative opinions
  • Challenging and evaluating ideas

The other activity, self-explanation could also be called learning and working out loud. It is directly related to the narration of work, which makes social networks transparent so that knowledge can flow. While Summarisation, Highlighting, and Imagery are considered low utility activities, they can still form the foundation for practicing the higher-level activities. They enable people to start small, and develop initial curation skills, but they are not enough. Critical thinking must be practiced (and encouraged in the workplace) as well as freely sharing what I call “half-baked ideas”.  In this way, professionals can engage in problem-solving activities at the edge of their expertise, where they should be in dealing with complexity.

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