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Monday, January 12, 2009

Better Memory

In Your Outboard Brain Knows All, Clive Thompson talks about how our need to remember is changing.
Neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.
The reality is that we were all trained in school to use metacognitive / metamemory methods and tools as a supplement to our knowledge. I'm only 43, but posts like New Work Skills are a bit of an eye opener that we were taught metacognition using note taking on paper, card catalogs, microfiche readers, rollodex, etc.



For many of us, Nick Carr's words ring true:
... the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind.
The reality is that metacognitive techniques are changing rapidly - hence so are work skills.

Better Memory Tools and Methods

If you are experience more and more of your information electronically, it stands to reason that we need to be good at effectively using this as a better memory. Most of the people who take our workshops on work skills, say that improving their ability around their ability to remember and organize information is one of the most valuable aspects.

In work literacy terms, better memory relates to keep / organize / refind /remind.

A perfect keep / organize / refind / remind system:
  • Keep everything ever encountered (without effort)
  • Organize it (with little to no effort)
  • Allow you to refind something you've seen before instantly based on incomplete information
  • Create lists and other reminders so that you don't have to even remember that you know it - i.e., list of people on the team, list of blog posts to go back and read, etc.
There's a lot that goes on around this and when you look at different projects and roles, this gets pretty varied, but let me explore a few different tools and methods that I apply to this that gets helps me is this area:
  • Google History - saves every page I've visited without me having to do anything and allows me to search for anything I've ever viewed at a later time. I don't like to have to use it, but it's a great back-up when I've not saved something another way.
  • Delicious - Use this social bookmarking tool to save pages with tags as the organizer for me to get back to at a later time. Since this is likely the one that is most new to people, I'll dive into more detail below.
  • Firefox Bookmarks - For pages that I want to launch all the time. I'll get back to this below.
  • Microsoft Desktop Search - Desktop search has probably had the greatest productivity improvement for me over the past few years. Google Desktop Search is also great, but I personally have had better results with Microsoft's integration with Outlook and I'm a heavy Outlook user.
Social Bookmarking



If you are not familiar with social bookmarking tools, I would start with the video above and go to the following to get yourself up to speed.
Then I would make sure I know the basics about using tags.
  • Choose existing tags to avoid misspelt tags (e.g., libary, libray).
  • Group compound terms together (e.g., personalLearning)
  • Use plurals to define categories (e.g., blogs)
  • Don't use symbols in tags with the exception of a tag like eLearning2.0 where the "." is okay. Don't use # or _
Social Bookmarking as Metamemory

What often gets left out of the discussion of social bookmarking is where it fits into keep / organize / refind / remind. I like to think about the main tools I use somewhat in a series:
  • Bookmarks in Browser - It's things you want to launch all the time. I put links to sites that I go to all the time here.
  • Bookmarks in Social Bookmarking Tool - This is where I proactively keep, organize (and sometimes share) things. I use tags to organize according to topic, role, project, group of people. This creates multiple lists for reminding.
  • Blogging - I use a blog or note taking as an added level of processing on information that I consume. Short notes on a single resource can be added to the social bookmark. More substantial notes need to get captured somewhere.
  • Google History - a fall back in case I didn't know at the time that I would want to get back to an item.
I think of the bookmarks in the browse similar to documents in recent or linked on my desktop. These are things that I want to launch often. I think of bookmarks in my social bookmarking tool as items that I want to organize into lists and be able to easily get back to later. This is similar to documents in folders. And Google History is a bit like desktop search. In case I wasn't willing to spend the time to save it, I still have a chance of finding it again.

Anticipated Need

The key term in all of this is anticipated need. You could spend all of your time keeping and organizing content. But the real goal is to spend the least amount of time to meet your future needs to refind and remind. The trick is that you often don't know what those needs will be. So, you are basing this all on your anticipated needs. This is also why spending some time on the top-down analysis is a great exercise. It will help you think through information needs today.



Three Metamemory Practices

#1 - Name Everything

Whenever you start a new project, start working with a new group, take on a new role, or start a new major concept work task, spend just a little time upfront anticipating your needs. Most importantly, at the start name everything and everyone and stick to that name. Every project gets a name. Every person gets a name. It takes a few seconds, but it saves you a lot in time spent refinding and reminding. This name then is on every folder, document, email, tag, etc.

#2 - Include Meta Information

The other practice to follow is to include enough information somewhere associated with every object (document, email, bookmark) so that you can find it again via search. Every email should have in the subject line or somewhere in the message. Even if the sender doesn't put it in there, put it in the response. I also tend to try to put in the names of participants in meetings in my notes and possibly other names like the client. All of this makes searching SO MUCH EASIER.

This is a big reason why I say that desktop search has become my biggest productivity boost.

#3 - Visit Every Page

Theoretically you can use Google to refind whatever you found before. But I often find that doesn't seem to work in practice. Thus, I make sure that any page that I might ever want to see again, I visit. That puts it into my Google History. My chances of finding it again go up considerably. This also means that when you find a magazine article that's interesting. You should go visit it online as well. That's extra work, but it makes it refindable.

Other Posts in the Series

2 comments:

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Yep Tony, this is a great post - kia ora!

It's funny how random access memory fits so much (for me) with what you've described here - a simple concept.

I like your 3 points:

#-naming
#-meta-info
#-marking for refinding

I began working with relational databases in the 80s when I was a computer trainer with Housing Corp NZ. But before I was into that, I used to write notes (with headings, which was naming) in a B20 text file in DOS. I recorded anything and everything that I thought was worth recalling - dates, addresses, events, names, companies etc.

I quickly got a reputation for finding useful things on my info system, though no one but me knew how it worked. I thought it was hillarious!

At that time, I wasn't permitted to have access to databases. My boss came to me one day and asked how my information system worked. When I explained that I used a search-and-find on junk that I'd accumulated in a text file, he was not impressed :-|

So he gave me access to my own database. That's when I learnt SQL - most of which I've now forgotten, but then, with Web2.0, who needs SQL?

Thanks for the nudge on social bookmarking - I've made a resolution to get into social bookmarking in 2009!

Haere rā
from Middle-earth

addled said...

Hi Tony,

I think this is really a very practical post and it helped me clarify similar information I had pushed off at the back of my mind.

I was also happy that I was following a few of the points you suggested like naming things. I used to have a fixed project name tag that I would define at the beginning of the project and tell all my team to use it when they sent project related emails. It really helped organize the mails as sometimes we would get mails for other projects as well. I would also have a folder in our server machine and define the high level naming of the folders so that we could search out what we needed with ease.

Thanks for sharing this. It was very clear and gave a lot of information.

Sreya