How to Scan, Absorb and Process Information
Learning new information quickly is very important to both designers and developers.
That being said, regardless of your profession and whether it’s for school, work, or personal improvement, being able to retain the information without the need to spend hours studying is an incredibly useful skill.
One of the best methods for learning new information quickly is to use the scan-absorb process method.
This consists of scanning content quickly, absorbing the important points, and then processing it so you can apply it to your own projects.
Read on for more details on each step…
Scanning is briefly looking over content, picking out only the most important bits to read.
This is probably the most important part of this learning method. It’s the first step, though it is often done in conjunction with the next step, “absorb”.
Not all content is appropriate for scanning, though, so make sure you take a quick look at whatever you’re preparing to scan with that in mind prior to starting.
Image by flippnjj
Look for Content Suitable for Scanning
Lists are particularly well-suited to scanning. Whether they’re bulleted, numbered, or in some other format, finding content that presents the information you need in list-form can improve your scanning effectiveness.
Just be wary of posts that are entirely list-based, with little or no other content. Lists should be used to emphasize the other content within the post, not in place of all other content.
The use of illustrations within a blog post or article can greatly improve how scannable it is. Well-chosen illustrations reinforce the concepts an article presents and can clarify points better than words sometimes.
One caveat, though: sometimes poorly-chosen images can only serve to confuse you more if you’re just scanning content. If the images don’t seem to be making any particular point, it’s best to either read the content fully or ignore the images all together.
Using font styles like bold and italic can make it easier to pick out key phrases within content. When overused, it doesn’t save much time for the reader, but it’s still a valuable way of picking out the most important points in a post or article.
Look for content that includes plenty of white space. This includes empty space around the text as a whole, as well as around headings and between paragraphs. Space in and around the text makes it easier to pick out particular words and phrases, and to read quicker. White space allows your eyes to relax, which lets you scan faster and with less eye strain.
The First and Last Sentence Technique
If the content you need to scan doesn’t include lists or other content mentioned above, you can use the first and last sentence technique.
This consists of reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph within the article. This technique is best suited to more formal text, where the first paragraph in a sentence is generally the thesis statement and the last sentence sums up the meaning of the paragraph and serves as a conclusion of sorts.
What this does is allow you to gather the most important points in an article or blog post without having to read the entire thing. It’s not well-suited to pieces that don’t have a formal structure, though, so be aware of that when attempting this.
Beware of particularly short and long paragraphs, too, as they can either cause you to read virtually everything in the article or miss important points, respectively.
Long is the Enemy
If you’re looking to scan information quickly, avoid long posts and articles.
While some longer posts that are well-structured can still be scanned, many longer articles have extraneous information that isn’t necessary to understanding the core information you’re looking for.
Another drawback to long articles is that they tend to go much more in-depth than many people need. Usually, if you’re using the scan-absorb-process method, you want a general overview of the topic at hand, not an understanding on par with those who have a PhD in the subject.
Long paragraphs are another enemy of scannability. Longer paragraphs have a couple of pitfalls. Longer paragraphs often contain more than one idea or concept, which prohibits the first sentence/last sentence rule from working as it’s supposed to.
These longer paragraphs are also often filled with extra information that isn’t vital to the core information presented. Conciseness is your friend when scanning content.
Look for shorter posts that are well formatted with lists, headings and subheadings, and styled text for optimum scannability. You’ll gain the most useful information while spending the least amount of time and effort.
Pay Attention to the Table of Contents
If you have to read something longer (maybe the only thing available that really covers the topic you want to learn about is a book), pay close attention to the table of contents to organize your learning ahead of time.
The table of contents will generally outline every important point related to a given subject, and can give you a great start on figuring out where to focus your efforts and what to take notes on (more on note-taking under “Absorb”, below).
When you need to learn more in-depth information than what scanning will allow for, speed reading can be a great solution.
It’s faster than how most of us traditionally read, but doesn’t skip as much content as scanning sometimes does. The absorb and process techniques outlined below can be used with speed reading just as they can be used with scanning.
Beware of False Scannability
There are a few cases where an article will appear scannable at first glance, but upon further inspection you realize they’re not particularly well-suited to scanning after all.
A post that is just one long list is one example. Lists are usually scannable, but when that list has 200 items on it, scannability flies right out the window. Look for posts that use lists as reinforcement of key points, not ones that contain nothing but list items.
Another big scannability problem comes when paragraphs within the article only contain one or two sentences. Reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph doesn’t save much time when those are the only sentences in each paragraph. While short paragraphs are definitely desirable over long ones, look for articles where most paragraphs are made up of at least four or five sentences.
Scanning information is only the beginning. Anyone can quickly glance over an article or post. That’s the easy part. It’s a bit trickier to absorb that information as you’re scanning, without having to go back over it half a dozen times before any of it sticks.
Image by Jean-Louis Zimmermann
Taking notes as you’re scanning can be a great way to absorb what you’re reading.
Write down the main points as you read them. You can do this stream-of-consciousness style, with little formatting or structure, or you can create an outline. Choose whichever one works better for you.
Outlines can be particularly helpful if what you’re reading is already well-structured with headings and subheadings. If not, you may just want to jot everything down in one long list.
Whether you write down verbatim what is contained in the article or rephrase it as you take notes depends on your own learning style. Some people have to rephrase in order to retain information, while for others just the act of writing it down will allow them to remember it.
As mentioned above, if you’re working with a longer piece, coming up with an outline or a list of points you want to take notes on prior to actually starting can streamline and speed up your efforts. A table of contents is a great place to get the necessary information to do so prior to actually delving into the text at hand.
If you’re not keen on taking notes, consider creating a mind-map showing the relationships between the information you’re reading.
Mind maps can be more creative than notes and can further help reinforce what you’re reading and allow you to retain that information for longer.
Reflect on what you’re reading as you read it. This can be done within your notetaking or separately.
One of the easiest ways to reflect on something is to ask yourself questions about it. Then, go find the answers to those questions in a similar fashion.
Question What You’re Reading
As you’re reading something, come up with questions related to the text. Answer them as you go along.
The purpose of this is to engage your mind as you’re reading. It also helps to ensure you don’t skip over important bits as you’re scanning.
If you can’t answer the questions you’ve come up with, you may need to either scan through the text again or look a little deeper into the subject you’re studying.
Your brain can only absorb so much information at one time. And that time gets shorter as you get older.
So instead of sitting down for a five-hour cram session, spend 20 or 30 minutes at a time, with 20 or 30 minute breaks in between. This gives your brain time to absorb, process, and store the information you’re scanning so you retain it better.
Scanning and absorbing can both be done without much deep or abstract thought.
They’re more mechanical than processing in that respect. But processing is where we actually learn information in a meaningful way. A way that we can then apply to the project at hand and to future projects.
There are a few ways to process the information you scan and absorb, and choosing the right one depends both on the information you’re looking at and your own learning style. Read on for some of the possibilities.
Image by jez
Rephrase What You’ve Read
Rephrasing what you’ve read can be done during the absorption stage (while taking notes) or afterward.
Scan and absorb the information as detailed above and then write out a short paragraph or two about what you just read. Sure, it might remind you a bit too much of all those reading assignments in school, but there’s a reason you were assigned that type of thing so often: it works and really does help you retain information.
Try It Out
If you’re reading a how-to article, try what it’s telling you.
This type of processing is particularly suited to short how-to articles that have advice you can repeat over and over again on multiple projects.
Gain More Experience
This is related to trying it out, but gaining more experience in a particular subject can give you the opportunity to not only try what you’ve learned, but to also expand on it with your own knowledge as you learn more.
Look for opportunities where you can apply the concepts you’ve scanned and absorbed. The more experience you get, the more you’ll learn from just a few minutes of scanning and absorbing.
Argument can be a great way to learn more about something. This works best with opinion pieces or articles where there are opposing viewpoints or options.
When you read something, try looking at it from the opposite angle. Poke holes in it, look for what it’s missing or has overlooked, and then write down those opposing views.
One of two things will likely happen when you do this. Either you’ll find that the original information you read stands up well to criticism and you’ll have a better understanding of it overall. Or, you’ll realize that there are better approaches and you may turn in a new direction. In either case, you’ll have more knowledge than you did when you started.
Content Particularly Suited to Scan-Absorb-Process
Some kinds of content are better suited to the scan-absorb-process method than others. Recognizing the kinds of content that can be more easily learned this way is vital to making the method work. Any well-formatted article can be used with this method, but there are other types of content that are also particularly well-suited.
Image by GrapeCity
Charts and Infographics
Simple charts, graphs, and other graphical representations of information are excellent for this method. The key here, though, is simplicity.
Complex charts and infographics can be nearly impossible to simply scan and get any kind of accurate picture of the data they contain. Graphs are slightly easier and trends can usually be picked out even with larger data sets.
People come up with theories all the time. From economic theories to conspiracy theories, non-scientific theories can usually be scanned quite easily as long as they’re properly formatted.
In many cases, theories are written out with tons of supporting information, much of which is repetitive. Scanning lets you pick out the most important concepts without reading a bunch of evidence that only reinforces what was said.
Be careful with this, though, as claiming a theory is valid without being able to quote any evidence can make you look like you’re willing to believe anything. But, scan-absorb-process is a good place to start when investigating theories about any non-scientific subject.
Scientific theories are often too complex for this method, though a cursory understanding can still sometimes be gleaned from scanning, absorbing, and processing.
How-to articles (not tutorials) are well suited for the scan-absorb-process method. In many cases, they follow a fairly formal structure and often use formatted text, lists, and headings to organize their material.
Things That Work Against Scan-Absorb-Process
We’ve covered things that are particularly well-suited to scan-absorb-process, but what about content that doesn’t work well with this method? Some content definitely isn’t learned well in this way and will require a different approach.
Video and Audio Content
This one’s a no-brainer. You can’t scan video or audio content. Fast-forwarding doesn’t count.
Step-by-step instructions need to be followed step-by-step. And scanning doesn’t really work well with that, as usually there isn’t much extraneous content you can skip over. The exception to this is when anecdotal support is provided for each step.
This can be skipped over, provided you understand the step without it.
Informal Opinion Pieces
This one has more to do with structure than the actual content. Most informal opinion pieces don’t do much with headings or font styles or formal paragraph structure, making scanning nearly impossible. While some opinion pieces might be scannable, the vast majority aren’t.
Pieces with Poor Structure
Structure is your friend when it comes to scanning information. Without well-thought-out paragraphs, lists, headings and subheadings, and styled text, scanning can be nearly impossible.
Luckily, in most cases you can tell right away whether something is well-formatted for scanning or not. If not, look elsewhere for the information you need or abandon the scanning and read the entire piece (you can still use the absorbing and processing methods described here).
Creating Content Suitable for Scan-Absorb-Process
The flip-side of learning to use the scan-absorb-process method for learning things is to create articles that keep this method in mind.
Those seeking information, online especially, often use this method either consciously or subconsciously and are more likely to turn to your site if your information is laid out in a manner that’s conducive to this method.
Here’s a simple questionnaire to cross-check your content:
- Do you use bold, italic, and other font styles to make important bits stand out?
- Do you use headings and sub-headings?
- Do you use lists to reinforce important points?
- Do the images you’ve used to illustrate your content help to clarify your meaning?
- Are your paragraphs short (but not too short, at least 3-4 sentences)?
- Do you use traditional paragraph format (a thesis sentence, followed by a few sentences supporting your thesis, with the last sentence a conclusion)?
- Absorb Information Like Never Before – From Get Everything Done.
- Absorb Information Faster Than Your Peers – From Lost In Cubes.
- Scannable Content – From ProBlogger.
- How to Write Scannable Content: A 6-Step Approach – From Daily Blog Tips.
- Reading on the Web – From Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox.
Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.
Did you just scan this article? :) How do you scan and absorb information? What methods work best for you?