What are active skills?

Active skills refer to things that we normally do, reading, listening and so on, but from which we don't necessarily extract much information and how we can change what we do to help us extract more information. If you like to think of it this way, you are improving your skills to actively extract useful information from things presented to you, even though the normal sense of the phrases is to make the processes actively engaged rather than passive.

For most of us reading a text book is a more active process than reading a magazine - we are seeking to extract information quite deliberately after all, rather whereas we often just skim the articles in a magazine. But when there is an article in the magazine we like we read it in a lot more detail and often recall it better than the text book information. This is, perhaps, the clearest example of active reading in action - although the emotional engagement that helps with the magazine of interest may be harder to summon for a dry paper or textbook.

So, what are the differences we can use? How can we learn these skills and apply them to what we need to learn as well as what we want to understand?

The core principles of active listening and active reading are similar - although some of the fine details are obviously different. The core principles can be summed as:

Note, using these suggestions can result in you rereading a document several times, as your needs and questions change. This isn't a bad thing, because it keeps the learning fresh in your mind at the time you need it. It might seem like a waste of time, but in the long term it will save you time on each part of your work.

Although it is not usually regarded as part of active reading, the SQ3R technique is worth remembering for all the active skills. This stands for: Skim (or Survey), Question, Read, Recall, Review.

  1. Skim: Does this look like it will answer my needs?
  2. Question: What does it say about the things I need to know?
  3. Read (or Listen obviously): Read the relevant bits in detail
  4. Recall: Make notes, mind-maps etc. Organise the key concepts and their supporting material in your mind or on paper or both
  5. Review: Write your pr&eacis, tell your colleague or similar. This will check you have the details organised and available

Unlike most new skills, most people find active listening and reading fairly easy to pick up. Their great benefit is that they actually rely on altering how you use existing skills - you are basically adding one step: deciding on your questions for what you want to learn and limiting your focus to that range of questions, but you probably have note-taking, reading, explaining and all the other skills already, you are just applying them more effectively.

NOTE: Active learning is a wonderful tool for focused learning. For example, it is a great tool for extracting information to help you write that essay, or find supporting materials for the discussion for that paper you really ought to be writing. In my experience it works best when there are a limited number of quite specific questions you want to answer. If you are reviewing a whole new field of learning - adding Helicobacter pylori immunity to your existing project to choose a personally relevant example from a few years ago for example, active learning may not be the ideal starting point. You won't be able to ask usefully focussed questions at first, so reading using the SQ3R approach, and talking to others with a similar approach without the active learning component will still have its place. Once you've done this with two or three good reviews you will find you can not only formulate the useful questions, you will probably have resources to hand that will let you find the most suitable materials to answer your specific questions when you do start actively learning.


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