Recently I happened upon a discussion among some fellow students of mine concerning the problem of reading and retaining practical knowledge. The discussion arose in the classroom when the professor was absent. (He had momentarily stepped out in order to give us the time freedom to fill out our student evaluations of him). We all finished our student evaluations rather quickly and the professor had not yet returned. Immediately, some of the students began to discuss the question of whether or not they had satisfactorily passed the reading quiz given at the beginning of the class. One student very openly and frankly confessed that he was only confident about one of the five answers that he had given. The problem, he explained, was that he would read material for the class, understand the practical principles with relative ease, but would not be able to regurgitate those principles for the quiz. Without commenting further concerning the progress of this conversation, let me pose this question: what makes the reading of practical books easy-to-understand, but difficult to retain?
I would suggest that many practical books (i.e. any book that contains information that suggests some type of procedure for implementation) are relatively easy to understand because most practical books appeal to principles we already know and use. In other words, practical principles are not the thing that we are learning; rather what we are learning is the specific application of those principles. In other words, when you are reading a cookbook, you are not learning how to cook in general rather you are learning how to cook something. Part of the difficulty is simply remembering the specifics.
There is another edit difficulty, which has to do with the systemization of practical knowledge. Most practical books layout and logical and explicit sequence of instructions whereas most of the time people tend to operate at an intuitive unstated level. Think about it this way: when you are driving down the road, are you mentally rifling through the various rules of the road that you have to learn as a 15-year-old? No. You may do so on occasion when discussing some type of ambiguity trafficking such as a four way stop or blinking traffic light. However, most of the time you operate more or less automatically without conscious thought. When you learn something new, you have to do so in an explicit conscious level. In other words, acquiring a new skill does not feel the same as doing that skill. In order to learn that skill, you must first learn the stated explicit logical sequence before it can become automatic knowledge.
As it turned out with my classmates, I found out that what they were failing to do was simply taking notes from the book, condensing those notes, and attempting to memorize those notes. You see, for them when they read the textbooks, they clearly understood the practical advice that was being given and the assumed that immediate understanding was the full extent of the task. However, this is only part of the task. Immediate understanding must be accompanied with intent on memorization. If one fails to attempt to retain the systematic framework of practical knowledge, then one is either simply lazy, or one assumes they are not learning anything new, or that they are right disagree. Immediate understanding could simply just indicate that they just understood the part but not the whole, which seems very likely in this case.
I say these things not to condemn my fellow classmates, but out of embarrassment from my own academic past. I can remember some of my teachers saying things like: "I'm not concerned that you memorize all the details, rather I want you to understand." I'm almost positive that the intent of my teachers was not to belittle the idea memorization but it was simply to stress the idea of understanding as the goal of reading. However, I interpreted the statements to mean – don't worry about memorizing anything just retain the big picture. What I have been learning since being in graduate school is that there must be a healthy combination of big picture understanding and memorization of detail. If one does not commit the details memory, then one risks actually having an inaccurate big picture. So, as an aspiring professor myself, I plan on telling my students, “I'm not concerned that you memorize details or understand the big picture, rather I am concerned that you memorize the details that support and informed the big picture!”