How to Read a Book & Learn Online

Professor Joe Goldblatt

When I made the momentous and life changing decision at the age of forty to return to higher education to earn my master’s and doctoral degrees, I did so with great trepidation. I had not sat in a classoom in nearly 20 years.

I well remember and shall always appreciate, as the playwright Tennessee Williams described so eloquently in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, the “kindness of strangers” that was offered to me by many friends and family as I began this arduous journey.

One new friend that I still treasure today was the Dean of Education at Tennessee State University (TSU). First and foremost he actually taught me how to read a text book. I met the Dean when Stedman Graham and I sought a meeting with the President of TSU to discuss launching a new academic programme in Events Management. The Dean invited me for coffee and we sat outside in the blazing Tennessee sunshine. He quitely asked me “Do you know how to read a text book?”

When I told him it had been two decades since I had held a text book in my hands he said “Well, then let’s start at the beginning.”

He then retrieved a book from his satchel and I noticed that it was brightly decorated with dozens of post it notes and it also had many passages underlined in bold yellow highlighter as well as many small notes in pencil around the edge of each page.

Looking up at the bright sun he said to me, “First, you must have a good light. Think of a book as if you were conducting an investigation in the operating room of a hospital. You need a strong and focused light and right environment to do your work effectively and to be sure you do not miss any future clues.”

“Next, make sure that you have the proper tools to do your work.” He then suggested that I must have a pad of paper to take notes (this was before the widespread use of lap top computers and tablets), several sharpened pencils with erasers, a couple of yellow highlighters, and a stack of coloured post it notes.

I was immediately mesmerised by his pre – planning and attention to detail. He reminded me ot a great chef preparing his mise en place (putting everything in place) prior to creating a brilliant masterpiece. I was further intrigued when he pointed to the name of the author upon the cover of the book and then he advised me to research the author’s credentials and background before I even opened the book.

“The more you know in advance about the author will help you develop trust and respect for his or her scholarship and writing and also help you prepare questions to ask him or her.”

I wondered how I could ask a deceased author any questions and then I realised that the wise old Dean was using a metaphor to suggest that as I read the book I should be having a conversation with the author as though he or she were sitting beside me all the time I was reading the book.

The Dean then suggested that I take out my note book and draw a line down the center of the first page. Then he suggested that on each side of the line I draw a plus or minus symbol at the top of the page. He said that under the plus sign I should list any areas where I agreed with the author and under the minus sign I should list areas where I disagreed or required further information to clarify the author’s and my own views. He also suggested that I list in this column key words, terms, phrases or formulas that I needed to research further to understand.

Then he reached deeper into his leather satchel and extracted a small dictionary. “You must always have a dictionary nearby when you are reading. This will help expand your vocabulary. The best writers occasionally will slip in a word that is unfamiliar to you and it will give you the added bonus or gift of learning a new word or phrase.” Since the invention of the electronic dictionary and later the internet, this type of enquiry has become much easier and faster, although I still prefer to use a soft cover dictionary.

He then slipped his hand into a well worn side pocket of his satchel and withdrew a small magnifying glass. “Remember, reading a book is similar to conducting an investigation. Like the great detective Sherlock Holmes or Alice in “Alice in Wonderland”, you shall need a good looking glass to see even further and not miss anything.

By now I was completely hooked and asked the kindly Dean if he would please explain to me how he used his yellow highlighter and post it notes to promote understanding and retention.

“First, you must have a system. Only highlight those areas that you discover where you are learning something new and you now want the light to shine on this forever. The post it notes may be also used systematically to indicate by colour coding key themes such as pink for areas you want to read again, green for new ideas, blue for areas you want to research further and red for sections where you disagree or need further clarification to better understand in the future.”

I soon realised that this man actually saw a text book, not as a cadaver worthy of an autopsy, but rather, as a living breathing wrestling partner. He wanted me to use the text book to wrestle with new ideas so that I would emerge from the tussle much stronger and perhaps even somewhat wiser.

Many years later, whilst completing my doctoral studies I was asked to launch a distance learning programme in Events Management. The programme would be supported by a new technology entitled Blackboard. Little did I know that in 1994 I would be one of the first ever course developers for the now global online learning behemouth Blackboard and the first to use the internet to deliver on line education.

I soon learned that while there was a great deal of research literature about teaching and learning in traditional ways, there was little to none regarding on line learning. I also soon learned that there was a significant difference between teaching children and helping adults learn. In fact, the two groups actually use different methodologies for teaching and learning. With children educators practice pedagogy or teaching and with adults we use andragogy which is the art and science of helping adults learn through independent investigation.

Since the recent global pandemic has forced millions of children and adults to be taught and to learn on line I have recently wondered if the research regarding on line learning has advanced since my first experience nearly thirty years ago. Surprisingly, I soon learned that the advice the Dean so generously offered me three decades ago still holds true today.

Therefore, if you are a teacher with students now learning on line or a student, make certain you take time to understand how to use a new learning environment to your and their best advantage. The modern advances in technology allow electronic note taking, highlighting, searches and must more. However, I firmly believe the Dean’s sage advice is still most important.

Firstly, provide the best setting for learning, second, research the author in advance, and third, use the right tools and the best system to help with understanding and retention. The twentieth century American educationalist, philosopher and reformer John Dewey understand the importance of the environment in terms of learning. He wrote

“We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference. ”

Second, you must prepare in advance by researching the author (s) or your book so that you are able to have a proper “conversation” with the creator of your textbook.

Third and finally, you should have the proper tools to accomplish the work before you. A dictionary, magnifying glass, highlighters, pencils, and post it notes are essential tools to help you conduct your future forensic investigation.

Whether you are reading for pleasure or for learning and regardless of the platform you use, I believe my old friend the Dean was correct when he bid my good bye with a smile and a wink, shook my hand vigorously and said “Good luck with your adventure.

Learning is indeed an adventure with many unexpected delights. To experience these delights you will need to be curious, prepared and determined to find new enlightenment within the pages of your book or screen. Good luck with your reading or on line learning adventure!

Professor Joe Goldblatt was a part and full time University teacher for 47 years. He is the author, co – author and editor of 40 text books. The Event Management distance learning programme he launched in 1994 has been replicated throughout the world.

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