Thinking critically about yourself

The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know, the world will tell you.

– Carl Jung

In our earlier discussion we defined critical thinking as the mental process of reflecting on and evaluating information in order to solve a problem or make a decision. We learned how to apply critical thinking to college-level readings. But what about using critical thinking to reflect on who we are and evaluate how the world sees each of us?

These days is difficult to navigate the web without finding an online questionnaire to complete. They are everywhere. And they always want to get to the bottom of really important questions like at what age will you get married?, are you a good cook? or what Hollywood start are you most alike?

While most of these types of questionnaires look innocuous, the truth of the matter is that big corporations are going through great lengths to figure out “what do you like”, but most importantly “who you are”.

Big data, predictive analytics, and algorithms are trending and fancy concepts that describe how we are being tracked and measured on a daily basis. Some of these concepts seem harmless or foreign to us. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

A very common trend in today’s workplace is the use of personality tests to assess and evaluate job applicants and employees. And when you submit your answers to one of these questionnaires, will they be getting the right picture about you? More importantly, who decides what’s the right picture?

These questions and ideas might be a little off topic from our class, but I wanted to spend some time discussing how these concepts affect our lives, the way we see ourselves and how the world sees and defines us.

These are the videos shared in class:

The uncomfortable truth about personality tests
The era of blind faith in big data must end

Critical reading

Becoming a critical reader

In order to read effectively and efficiently –and truly learn from what you’re reading– you must be analytical and strategic. College students struggle with “reading comprehension” because at this level ideas are more complex, readings are more dense, and the main goal is no longer to simply memorize facts. You are required to understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate information. In other words, you need to develop and apply critical thinking skills.

Simply defined, critical thinking is the mental process of reflecting on and evaluating information in order to solve a problem or make a decision. When you are asked to read critically, you must engage with the text by using multiple levels of thinking. We have previously discussed some of those levels when we learned about different types of questions during our unit on preparing for exams. But let’s briefly revisit those ideas.

I truly hope some of you might still remember an earlier class concept called Bloom’s taxonomy. If not, let’s refresh. Bloom’s taxonomy is a very well known classification of learning objectives. Every time you read a learning objective on a lesson, most likely it was created based on Bloom’s taxonomy. The basic premise of this classification is that in order to achieve higher learning you need to pass through the following levels of the cognitive domain (typically represented as a pyramid):

Bloom’s Taxonomy
    • Can you recall or remember the information?
    • Common verbs: define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce, state
    • Can you explain ideas or concepts?
    • Common verbs: classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase
    • Can you use the information in a new way?
    • Common verbs: choose, demonstrate, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, dramatize
    • Can you distinguish between different parts?
    • Common verbs: appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, examine, experiment, question, test
    • Can you justify a stand or decision?
    • Common verbs: argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate
    • Can you create a new product or point of view?
    • Common verbs: assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write

Reading strategically

Reading could be daunting in some cases –boring, some of you might say. But if you approach it strategically it could be extremely enlightening and rewarding.

The following ideas should help you improve your reading skills and increase your comprehension levels. While most of them are related to reading traditional college textbooks, the basic principles are applicable and adaptable to a large number of reading materials. You don’t need to follow them in the particular order provided here. Adapt each step to the specific type of reading you are trying to complete.

  1. Start with the course’s Syllabus:
    • Make sure you understand the main learning goals and objectives of the course. This will provide you the proper context for most of your readings.
    • Identify the key concepts and ideas that will be discussed throughout the semester. Every week you must review the syllabus (and/or course calendar) to identify main topics for that week and possible connections between prior and future topics.
  2. Go to the table of content of your textbook:
    • Identify the organizational structure (compare with the syllabus)
    • Look for primary topics and secondary topics
    • Identify content and context (each lesson/content belongs to a primary context)
    • When available, follow the chapter’s outline to help you build a structure
    • Convert primary and secondary topics into questions
    • Divide the chapter in smaller chunks to study over multiple days
  3. Next, go to the first page of the chapter and start looking at the learning objectives if available. Sometimes, learning objectives are spread-out through multiple pages. Convert the learning objectives into questions:
    • Start with What, When, Where, Who, WHY and HOW. These questions will serve as a roadmap for your reading. Don’t expect to create a perfect “study-guide”.
    • Don’t assume each objective is a single question. A single learning objective could be the source of multiple questions. You’ll get better at this the more you practice and the more you think critically. It’s OK to challenge and question what you read. The following article provides additional ideas on How to ask questions that prompt critical thinking.
  4. Before you start reading, browse the entire chapter or article and look for headings, sub-headings, tables, graphics, pictures, or any other highlighted content. Create additional questions from them and/or identify questions already answered by them.
  5. After (a) browsing the chapter/article, (b) identifying primary and secondary topics, and (c) writing your questions, then go to the end of the chapter. If there’s a summary or recap section, read it first.
  6. Now you are ready to start reading with the real purpose of achieving a deep learning experience.

For ideas on how to implement critical thinking through your reading process, watch this video from the Snap Language Youtube channel:

Using a pre-defined reading system

The course textbook provides three examples of reading systems that are easy to follow and implement. You could try them independently or you could develop your own system using steps from each of them based on the particular needs of your courses.


  • Preview
    • read intro, summary
    • glance at headings, formatted text, tables
  • Read actively (10-page or 30-minute chunks)
    • reflect on what you’re reading
    • highlight
    • take notes
    • write questions
    • write summaries in margins
  • Review (every 10 pp/30 min; at end of chapter)
    • test self on main points
    • answer questions


  • Survey (similar to the first step in P2R)
  • Question (one section at a time)
    • turn each heading into a question
  • Read (one section at a time)
    • read the material related to each heading, trying to answer the question you posed
  • Recite (one section at a time)
    • state answer in your own words
    • highlight answers and/or create outline of answers
  • Review (at end of chapter)
    • review your outline
    • self-test your recall of each section


  • Survey (same as before)
  • Read (one section at a time)
    • write down the heading on a sheet of paper
    • read the section
  • Underline (one section at a time)
    • after you’ve read the section, underline or highlight important points
  • Note-taking (one section at a time)
    • write highlighted content in your own words
  • Review (at end of chapter)
    • review your notes
    • self-test your recall of each section
    • create and answer questions

For a quick take on active reading strategies, here’s another video from the College Info Geek, Thomas Frank:

Here’s a list of some general reading tips provided by the textbook (Van Blerkom, page 181):

  • read chapter before lecture
  • build prior knowledge
  • divide chapter in readable chunks
  • preview chapter before reading
  • use a reading system
  • mart text (but never during first reading)
  • monitor comprehension
  • review what you read
  • prompt your memory
Reading tips: read chapter before lecture, build prior knowledge, divide chapter in readable chunks, preview chapter before reading, use a reading system, mart text, monitor comprehension, review what you read, and prompt your memory.
Image of reading tips (Van Blerkom, page 181)

Note Taking

Note taking is one of those skills that doesn’t get old. Whether you use it for college, work, or just as a general skill, becoming a good note taker brings many benefits to your life. While there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way of doing it, in order to enhance your kills you might have to re-think your approach to note taking.

Approach it as a learning strategy

What is the “best” way to take notes during class? The safe answer is, it depends. The nature of the lecture, the teaching style of the professor, the type of content being studied, all are factors that could determine the most effective approach to taking notes. And with so many technological advances available today, is it still necessary to take notes?

Now, the answer to that last question is simple. Yes, it is still necessary and recommended to take notes during class. Even if you can record the lecture or even if the professor provides handouts, always take notes. Why, you ask? Because taking notes is in itself an extremely valuable form of learning.

As vital as it is, the main goal behind taking notes is not just to help you create a tool to review and study content at a later time. One critical goal of taking notes is to help you process and learn the information in real-time, when you are taking your notes. And another essential goal of note taking is to develop active listening, which is an critical skill for the workplace and beyond.

Think of it as a process

Taking good notes is more manageable when you approach it as a process. This process starts before class, becomes crucial during class and continues after the class or lecture is over.

Before class

Taking good notes requires preparation. Before class you must build background knowledge by reading any assigned material or researching class content. You can’t (or shouldn’t) write down everything a presenter is saying. You must focus on key points or main ideas. That’s more difficult to accomplish when you are not familiar with the subject. Preparing before class is the first step to become and active listener and a good note taker.

Speaking about active listening, it’s extremely challenging to take good notes if you lose focus and stop paying attention. Not all topics or lectures are equally engaging. You must make an effort to find the motivation to learn the content in order to sustain your focus and avoid common physical and mental distractions (day-dreaming, getting bored, falling asleep, etc.).

During Class

Is not practical or possible for all students to sit in the front of the room, but if you are in a classroom setting, sit in a location conducive to good listening. And put away your electronic devices and any other items that could create distractions (food included). If you are using a digital device to take notes, turn off the cellular or wifi connection and/or turn off all notifications.

If your professor teaches using slides, look for headings, sub-headings or any kind of formatting that will help you identify key and important points. Pay attention to the voice-tone and body language of the lecturer to determine emphasis. Listen to the questions being asked. Write them down. Even if you miss the answers they can help you because questions discussed during class are always useful when preparing and studying for exams.

If you want to improve retention of the content being presented you need to make learning memorable. You are never going to retain one hundred percent of the content. But when you make connections, your ability to retain information increases and improves.

Like on a treasure hunt, where you are constantly searching for clues, you need to do the same in the learning environment. Look for memorable moments in the lecture: a key word, an intriguing concept, an idea you don’t understand, a catching phrase, anything that makes you wonder. And once you find that concept or idea grab it and make it personal.

After Class

Once you are finished taking your lecture notes is time to move-on to the next class. WRONG. Immediately after class, if possible, you should take a close look at your notes and start editing them. Correct errors, clarify meaning, fill in any gaps, add examples, write and answer questions; in other words, improve the quality of your notes. You will do this more efficiently when your memory and knowledge is fresh. If you wait several days (even hours) this task will become more difficult. Doing this with a classmate or a small study group could make this strategy even more effective.

Choose an appropriate template or format

Taking notes becomes easier when you use a particular format or template. As mentioned before, which template is more appropriate depends on different factors like the nature of the lecture, the teaching style of the professor, the type of content being studied, or simply your personal preference.

The following are examples of note taking formats you could follow. At the end of this post, I’ve included some great videos about note taking strategies.

Cornell Notes
The Cornell method provides a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes. Under this format the paper is divided into two columns: the note-taking column (usually on the right) is twice the size of the questions/keyword column (on the left). At the bottom of the page there’s a two inches space to write a small summary of the page’s content.

The Cornell method was conceived to implement the following steps:

  1. Record: During the lecture, use the note-taking column to record the lecture using telegraphic sentences.
  2. Questions: As soon after class as possible, formulate questions based on the notes in the right-hand column. Writing questions helps to clarify meanings, reveal relationships, establish continuity, and strengthen memory. Also, the writing of questions sets up a perfect stage for exam-studying later.
  3. Recite: Cover the note-taking column with a sheet of paper. Then, looking at the questions or cue-words in the question and cue column only, say aloud, in your own words, the answers to the questions, facts, or ideas indicated by the cue-words.
  4. Reflect: Reflect on the material by asking yourself questions, for example: “What’s the significance of these facts? What principle are they based on? How can I apply them? How do they fit in with what I already know? What’s beyond them?
  5. Review: Spend at least ten minutes every week reviewing all your previous notes. If you do, you’ll retain a great deal for current use, as well as, for the exam.

Outline format
Outlines are one common way to take or rewrite your notes. Using an outline is helpful because it gets you to think about how your information is organized. When you make an outline, you’re showing a hierarchy while deciding what idea is the main idea, what are the details, and which details belong together.

Mind mapping
A mind map is a way of visually outlining information by creating a diagram. By laying out ideas in space (and not just in a single straight list, as in an outline), you can show connections and relationships with greater nuance. For this reason, mind maps are especially good for showing processes and important concepts. Mind maps are also good for students who prefer to see things visually.

My note-taking lecture

Here’s a previously recorded lecture on note-taking strategies:

The following link provides an accessible script of the content from this video:

More videos on note-taking

College Info Geek, Thomas Frank, uses Street Fighter characters to explain how to take notes in class using “the best” five methods:

From the YouTube channel SciShow Psych, this video explains how to take “the best notes” according to Psychology (with a great discussion on paper-based vs. digital notes):

And here’s another great video on note-taking; this one from the YouTube channel Med School Insiders:


Learning Goals for the memory unit:

  • Compare and contrast memory processes and types of memory
  • Explain causes of forgetting and general strategies for enhancing retrieval
  • Describe and apply five specific memory strategies

Three basic memory challenges

  • Focus: the human brain is not “wired” for multitasking. Effective learning requires undivided attention.
  • Duration: Our brain has an immense capacity to store information; but it also has a tendency to “forget” when the information is not stored properly of is “learned” with ineffective cues. For additional insights, please refer to Hermann Ebbinghaus  The Forgetting Curve Theory.
  • Capacity: our short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously. George Miller suggested the number seven as a “rule” of thumb, but new research suggests short-term memory is more limited than we thought.

Types of memory

Sensory memory

  • Involves our sensory registers; very big but short-lived storage system for raw info
  • Attention is the process of finding relevant info in that big stream of data
  • You can only pay attention to one cognitively demanding task at a time (the other task is on auto-pilot or done without full concentration)

Short term memory

  • When you direct attention to or perceive information, it moves from your sensory memory to your short-term memory (STM)
  • Two components of STM:
    • Immediate Memory – Related to the concept of consciousness or what you are currently thinking about; limited in retaining about 7 chunks of information (e.g., social security numbers)
    • Working Memory – The part of STM that is about using strategies; the part of STM that manipulates/works on info to help put it into LTM

Long-term memory

  • “Unlimited” capacity (but we don’t necessarily have unlimited power or capacity to think… think of it as a big hard drive with a limited, fully utilized processing chip)
  • Provides the context of prior knowledge that helps you interpret and encode new information
  • •nfo in LTM can be retrieved and transferred into working memory to be used again and again and again
  • To benefit from these processes, you must store your information in an efficient, organized manner so you can retrieve it later (say, on an exam) à this is accomplished through memory strategies

Problems that lead to forgetting

  • Failure to encode (i.e., never really learned it)
  • Failure to store in an organized, useful way (i.e., not understanding the information)
  • Cramming
  • Stored with too few cues
  • Interference (not enough distinction between closely related info)
  • Test Anxiety
  • All of the above may overlap – not necessarily distinct

5 groups of learning strategies

1. Rehearsal

  • These strategies involve practicing the material until it is learned.
  • Two types:
    • Low-Level Rehearsal: Used for simple, easy-to-recall tasks (e.g., spelling exams in high school) and involve reading material a few times, saying it over and over again, and copying it down multiple times
    • High-Level Rehearsal: Used for a large amount of complex, or difficult, information and may include techniques such as outlining, predicting test questions, explaining information in  your own words, making self-tests, or creating charts
  • Elaborative rehearsal – Repetition that involves making the information meaningful (more specific strategies in Ch. 10)
  • Research shows high-level rehearsal is more effective than low-level rehearsal

2. Elaboration

  • Involves expanding on the information, forming associations, or connecting new information to what you already know
  • Examples: Paraphrasing, summarizing, explaining, and creating/answering questions
  • Another good type of elaboration/memory strategy is connecting information to your own life or experience
  • When you personalize materials, it is easier to recall because your memory for personal information is strong

3. Organizational

  • Adding structure to make information easier to learn and recall
  • Listing, ordering, grouping, outlining, mapping, etc.
  • Restructuring the material provides you with new ways to remember it

4. Comprehension Monitoring

  • Allows you to monitor or keep tabs on your learning
  • Gaining feedback on the effectiveness of your study strategies and how well you are retaining the information saves you time and frustration
  • Helps you determine when learning or understanding breaks down
    • Ie. Asking self summary questions while reading
    • Ie. Writing questions to practice answering later
    • Ie. Developing and taking practice tests

5. Affective and Emotional

  • Attitude – improve your attitude or interest in the material by giving yourself a purpose in studying it
  • Monitoring your learning – Recite information and test your memory; if you can remember information, this will make you feel good and know you are learning
  • Your state of mind during an exam – This can greatly affect your performance on an exam; knowing you are prepared for an exam reduces (even may eliminate) test anxiety

Additional resources

Refer to my articles about the researched-based Top Ten Study Strategies Ranked and the one about Practicing retrieval.

And here’s a list of memory tips from our Van Blerkom textbook:

Some articles about the effect of exercise on memory and learning:

This short video from UC San Diego provides practical examples of how to implement retrieval strategies:


What is concentration?

Concentration can be described as the intentional act of focusing your attention on the task or activity at hand. It means being mentally present and attentive to the specific goal you are trying to complete. The moment you change your attention to a different task you lose concentration and the moment this happens your learning is compromised.

This is the simplest way I can explain one of the biggest challenges of effective learning: lack of focus. Focus is defined as the action or power of concentrating one’s attention or mental effort on a specific thing or activity; and the quality of having a clear visual definition. Notice how both definitions of focus and concentration are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other.

Multiple studies confirm that the human brain is not wired to multitask; at least not when one task requires undivided attention, like learning. When you’re trying to learn something new the brain must be free of distractions if you want to obtain a good return-on-investment on your study time. What we typically call multitasking is really task switching. We move swiftly from one task to the other and create the illusion of multitasking.

Different levels of concentration

According to Van Blerkom, there are three levels of concentration: light, moderate, and deep. During a study cycle, your brain moves through these three levels and achieving the deepest one takes a significant amount of time and effort. The following diagram explains how we move through this cycle:

Arrows moving around a circle describing the concentration cycle; light concentration (5 minutes); moderate concentration (about 4 minutes); deep concentration (about 40 minutes).
Concentration Cycle

Any type of distraction that interferes with your focus and concentration forces the brain to move from deep to light concentration, assuming that you ever reached that deeper level. When you allow distractions to get in the way, regaining deep concentration will require a significant amount of time and effort which will make your learning more difficult and frustrating.

There are three types of concentration problems:

  1. Focusing at will: turning your attention to the task at hand right away
  2. Sustaining your focus: maintaining concentration during a period of time
  3. Limiting your focus: focusing on only one task at a time

And there are three main sources of poor concentration:

  1. Lack fo attention
  2. Lack of interest
  3. Lack of motivation

5 Strategies to improve concentration

1. Motivational and organizational strategies

  • Develop a positive attitude toward your work•Identify relevance, value, and importance•Believe you can accomplish the task
  • Create interest in the task•Make material more interesting to you•Change how you approach the task•Break into smaller pieces
  • Use goal-setting strategies
    • What specifically will you be doing?
    • What do you hope to learn?What are the requirements of the assignment?
  • Use time-management strategies
    • To-do lists
    • Organized/scheduled study time•Plan backward to give self enough time

2. Create a positive learning environment

  • Control, reduce time in, or eliminate external distractions – do so by creating a good study environment
  • Find a Better Location
    • Change where you sit in class, where you study, etc.
  • Reduce Multitasking
    • Constantly shifting attention interferes with concentration
    • Complete bite-size, specific tasks one at a time
  • Minimize Distractions that you can’t eliminate•Only give distractions a few seconds of your time, not minutes

3. Deal with internal distraction

  • Deal with Competing Activities or Thoughts
    • Note the distraction/thought, then plan to deal with it later
  • Deal with Academic or Personal Problems
    • Don’t worry – DO (take action)
    • Build confidence by meeting with tutor, TA, prof, etc.

4. Use active learning strategies

  • When in lecture:
    • Take notes
    • Ask/answer questions
    • Predict what’s next
    • Sit in professor’s line of site
  • When reading:
    • Preview
    • Take notes
    • Create flash cards
    • Predict test questions
  • When studying:
    • Write
    • Recite key info
    • Self-test
    • Remind your self of goals
    • Set deadlines

5. Monitor your concentration

  • Develop a tracking system to monitor and evaluate distractions
  • Create a plan to address those distraction when they happen

Video resources

In the following Ted Talk, Peter Doolittle explains some common challenges of concentration and memory. He also provides some strategies to overcome them. We’ll have a deeper discussion of concentration and memory in our next unit.

On this other video, Cal Newport explains how to attain focus and succeed in a distracted world by applying three simple strategies: 1. embrace boredom, 2. productive meditation, and 3. interval training.