Using Mental Frameworks To Learn More

Study Tip #17

Introduction and examples of frameworks
Educational researchers have found a powerful technique students can use to understand and remember more: Plug new ideas into familiar frameworks. As you read the following examples, notice how the use of organizing frameworks helped people learn more easily.

  • Researchers improved U.S. history textbooks for middle school children by teaching them "big ideas". For example, they taught them that human problems in history led to solutions and the solutions in turn led to more effects. Children studying with this familiar big idea in mind both understood history better and remembered more.
  • Researchers studying ways to present material in textbooks discovered that when they organized information graphically in charts, people learned better than when they presented information in ordinary outlines. Students found there was something about seeing concepts and ideas neatly according to their place in a framework and displayed in rows and columns that improved learning. Students who organize notes in charts learn better, too.
  • Researchers studying memory have discovered that when people have to learn lists of related terms, like the names of rocks and minerals in geology, they can remember more if they see the contents in organized charts than in lists or unorganized charts.
  • Researchers have discovered that if they tell the story of a baseball game to people who already understand baseball rules and how typical games go (a framework), such people have a good memory for the stories. In contrast, people who don't know baseball somehow cannot remember as much of the stories. This advantage occurs on most topics on which people already have a body of knowledge. The more we know, the more rapidly we learn.
  • The writers of a difficult chapter in a biology text had to solve the problem of describing 19 parts of cells clearly. They solved it 3 ways: They made a table and grouped the summary information under the headings of structure (the 19 parts), the parts' functions (what they did), and the parts' composition (what they were made of). They also drew diagrams labelling the parts in the cells. And they linked the parts as they wrote the descriptions by describing the flow of stuff that the cells made and how the flow goes from part to part. The resulting frameworks helped readers bring order out of complex and very unfamiliar material.
  • Yet certain frameworks are bad for learning! Researchers have discovered that when teachers and writers tell interesting stories and odd but irrelevant facts, unfortunately students' learning drops. And when the irrelevant facts are told at the beginning of a lecture, the damage is worse. Why? Because students use these irrelevant frameworks to organize the material around.

Each of these methods involves building frameworks that give general summaries that help the reader understand different kinds of specific information.  Each framework has parts that are linked together. When we learn new facts, we will fit them somewhere in the frame. We do not have to learn thousands of facts as unrelated items, but can associate each new fact to its classification within the frame.

Formal Definition: A framework is a general body of knowledge about a topic. It contains attributes of the topic, and attributes can vary from case to case. For example, people's knowledge of baseball rules contains general knowledge of how events can vary in games.

Tips on using frameworks in reading.

Caution: The following ideas are much more useful for learning theories, facts, information, rules -- non-fiction. They are less useful for learning and understanding poetry, music, fiction, and art.  Yet there are applications.

  • When you read difficult new material for the very first time, you don't need to think about frames unless it is very easy to do. You will often find it best just to read for ordinary understanding the first time. But on your second reading, then you should link new information to parts of frameworks.
  • Do search for frameworks. You will often find them in headlines, section headings, summaries, charts, diagrams, flow charts, general principles. You will also see them in introductions or in the topic sentences of paragraphs. Look for them in analogies, similes and metaphors.
  • When you study information, study the bits of information in pairs: (1) a specific fact or concept and (2) what part of a framework it fits.
  • Study in little cycles: You look at the book, then you stop and look inward and link an idea to a place in a framework. Read and link, read and link. Stop after finding new facts or concepts and think which part of the framework the new information fits into. Link facts to categories in frameworks one by one. Doing this will require you to practice changing your normal behavior because most of us just read steadily without stopping to think. Change! It's important!
  • Link important concepts and ideas with several frameworks, because when we associate new material to several things our memory improves.
  • Use visual and spatial frameworks to organize new information. Make mental pictures of ideas. Research shows that linking information to visual frameworks is very powerful; it usually beats learning in words. Try to see the new information.
  • Combine both visual and verbal information in the same framework. Charts and graphs do that. When the authors give charts which arrange ideas in rows and columns to see, use them carefully. When you have no charts available, make your own charts and diagrams that show relationships.
  • Use your body movements as a framework. When you read about doing procedures, you can imagine moving your hands or legs. Movements make good frameworks.
  • When you recall a personal experience similar to new knowledge, use your experience as a framework and interpret the new ideas in terms of it.
  • Use the parts of frameworks as a source for questions to test yourself with. You may already be aware that asking and answering questions about the material is a very powerful way to study. You can make it even more powerful by picking the parts of a framework as the question and using as answers the specific information you are learning or vice versa.

Handling the problem of learning both the framework and new information at the same time.
When you already know a framework, learning is easy. But suppose you have the harder task of learning both new information and new frameworks at the same time. How do you do it?
When everything is new to you, set as your goal to create rapidly both a core of familiar frameworks and a core of well-learned facts. These two cores will not cover everything in the material.
Try these tricks:

  • Ask your teacher to identify the "big ideas".
  • Put your most intense studying efforts into the first few days of these difficult units. It will pay off later in more relaxed studying.
  • Learn the vocabulary and basic facts very fully. Review repeatedly, use flash cards, test yourself, and practice so that you have a solid core.
  • As you identify assumptions, basic patterns and principles, and organizing ideas, write them down and practice them. These are mini-frameworks.
  • Then link new facts to the new frameworks.

Handling the problem of missing frameworks:

Five useful frameworks
Sometimes you won't be able to find good frameworks in the books or articles you read. When that happens, you can use these commonsense frameworks. They apply to many topics.

  • Time: Before and after. Organize things you read about in series by what comes first, second, third. As you become conscious of time order, your memory will go up.
  • Cause-and-effect.  Many things cause or influence other things to happen. To say "cause" does not mean that something is the only cause of another event, just that it affects or influences the second thing. For example, you might read a sociology article that links the high cost of housing (cause) to a high rate of homelessness (effect).  Or in the children's story The Three Little Pigs, the foolish pigs choose to build their house of straw (cause) which later allows the wolf to blow their house down (effect). If you use your mind to classify events as causes and effects, your memory and understanding will rise.
  • Good and bad. Often authors place value judgments on material and organize it into good and bad effects, pros and cons, costs (bad) and benefits (good). This is widespread in college work.  Place things into the good/bad framework and your memory will improve.
  • Means and goals. When you are learning how to do procedures (work in labs, solving problems), you will learn steps that achieve subgoals, which lead to larger goals, which lead to larger goals. Let your mind notice and classify this material into means and goals.
  • Concept hierarchies.  Do you remember seeing a biological classification of species and genuses and families and so on? That's a concept hierarchy. Some concepts are general and include many subordinate concepts; and many concepts are on the same level of generality.  When you read material that includes concepts, put them into concept hierarchies and you will improve your memory. Draw charts of concepts.

Summary: These are not the only common sense frameworks you can use. You can think of many more. But you will find them useful in bringing order out of the chaos of lectures and textbooks.