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Learning is...How To Draw Lessons Out of Data

Are you drowning in data? Struggling to absorb it and make it useful? Here's a secret.

Disfluency! Not the dictionary definition of "interruption in the smooth flow of speech," rather a the flow of data.

Charles Duhigg's great new book "Smarter, Faster, Better" devotes a chapter to Absorbing Data. He uses examples of teachers in Cincinnati, debt collectors for Chase Bank, and a study from Princeton/UCLA to show how it's not possessing data that makes the difference, it's how we interact with it. And how these groups introduced disfluency to use data to their advantage.

He writes about South Avondale, ranked as one of the worst scoring schools in Cincinnati. It was declared an "academic emergency" by school officials. The officials tried everything to raise the test scores. Resources were not the issue, they even had sophisticated software to track student performance. But there was so much data, the teachers had became "passive" consumers. School officials determined data can be transformative, but only if people know how to use it. Teachers had to be forced to interact until it influenced how they behaved.

The teachers were asked to transcribe individual student test scores onto index cards, manually chart the data on butcher paper mounted on the walls, and to run experiments with the conclusions. That's right - old fashioned index cards. They were forced to interrupt the flow of data with disfluency. As they manually completed the cards teachers said they began to focus on individual kids not the whole the class. They focused even more on individual strengths and weaknesses. They rearranged cards into smaller groups and different configurations. They experimented and adjusted their methods based on their findings which gathered more data for the cards. As they applied their findings test scores went up and up finally doubling year over year.

The Chase debt collectors faced a similar dilemma. Charles recounts, while they had massive reports on their customers who were falling behind on payments, Chase found most employees paid little attention to the data. They had become passive consumers. However, one team was collecting larger-than-usual amounts. Consultants were sent to investigate. They asked the manager to see her calendar. Expecting to see a journal, instead they were presented with a binder filled with printouts from each day containing hand written annotations and comments from employees with notes suggesting why certain tactics had worked. Turned out her team was keeping careful manual notes each day. In doing so, they were heightening their sensitivity to the data. They were adding disfluency to the process, working on the data until lessons were easier to absorb.

He also included a story about a Princeton/UCLA study. The study examined the relationship between disfluency and learning by looking at the difference between college students who took notes by hand and those who used a laptop to transcribe notes. It turned out the hand writers scored twice as high on the tests as the typists. Hmm, the researchers wondered if the hand writers were studying more after the class. So they confiscated notes after class and did the testing again later in the week with the same result. The hand writers scored twice as high again.

In conclusion Duhigg writes, "When we encounter new information and want to learn from it, we should force ourselves to do something with the data." Smartphones, websites, and digital databases put information at our fingertips. But it only becomes useful if we know how to make sense of it -- that requires disfluency. Interrupt the flow and interact in a manual way with the data. Good old fashioned index cards, printouts, charts and hand written notes can force interaction and help absorb the lessons in the data so we can use it to our advantage.

It's been useful to me and I hope it will be interesting to you, too.

And read "Smarter, Faster, Better" to get the whole story.

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