How do you learning from text-based information you find on the Internet

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns


For many years my work centred on teaching teenagers and adults strategies for studying, reading, remembering and the like. This article draws from that work. It is about learning how to efficiently find and learn from information you locate on the Internet.

After learning a set of strategies, such as those presented in this article I would suggest you use the strategies as often as you continue to find places to apply them over the next few days or weeks. You want to repeatedly apply a strategy until it becomes automatic. Remember too that no one strategy or approach is right for everyone. You might need to modify the strategy to some degree. So please, knowing yourself, choose what is useful and bypass what is not.

Let's get started

There are two things striking to me about the Internet right now.

1. The format for information as provided on most websites makes learning that information difficult. This is for many diverse reasons. But, then, this is no different than most other mediums for information delivery. There is just a lot more of it, making more learning difficult for a lot more people.

2. Just like other methods used for communication, such as, magazines and books, much of what is designed for the Internet shows little, if any, understanding of human behaviour. Especially motivation and learning behaviour.

I am not trying to be funny, or flippant, or irreverent. I wish it were different. I want what is found on the Internet to support people actually using and learning the information found. I want it to support me as a user! Some of it does. But so much of it doesn't. The presentation of a page can look fantastic and yet be so boring, so frustrating and so confusing.



"Don't shoot the messenger -
unless its because the information
is of low quality."

Stephanie Burns

There is no value in complaining
or waiting for it to change!


Note: At the time I wrote this article the distinction between a learning site and website was not well formed in my mind.

You will notice here I swing between these two notions. In later writing this distinction is very clear.


It is not useful to complain about the inadequacies of how information is presented, or worse, to wait for it to change.

Here is what I want you to think about (simply because it is more useful, not more right):

Being bored should never be a good enough reason to abandon the opportunity to learn.

Being frustrated by how something is presented is not a good enough reason either.

Although it is a shame that information is presented (by human or on a computer page) in a boring or frustrating design we should NOT as users or learners be deterred from trying our best to learn from it.

This is so important!! When information is presented in ways that violates basic principles of motivation and learning, BUT is information that you have determined is of high quality then get focused and use whatever learning strategies you possess to support your learning process.



Decide, in advance, what it is you want to learn from the piece.

It might be specific

What are the four challenges to learning an art

What is one strategy I can use from this?

It might be very general

What is the overall problem presented here?

What implications will this have on my work?

In many cases you will know what it is you want to know about the subject in a given piece. In some cases you might just be curious to know a bit about a subject. In other situations you might want to improve your competence in that skill area.

Your outcome should determine your approach to learning. Know that not every outcome can be achieved by reading. Some outcomes require study. Some scanning. Some reading the conclusion first.

Here are some useful rules to follow:

Read stories and anecdotes and written pieces you want to "feel". Also, use reading for pieces you want to get a general impression of and any piece you want to "hear" as if listening to someone speak. Read pieces you DO NOT care about remembering the detail of because there is nothing in the act of reading that will make the information memorable.

This means DO NOT USE READING FOR SPECIFICS! Reading is too slow and you will more than likely either miss the important information altogether because you'll be daydreaming (your brain has little tolerance for understimulation), or not be able to discern this information from other less than useful information because in reading all information visually appears to carry the same weight.

Study pieces that contain information you want to remember or use in the future.

Scan pieces that contain specific information that you will find useful (e.g. a date, a name, a theory, a main idea).

Read back to front pieces for which you only want the conclusion, or in which you need to know the conclusion in order to decide what it is you want out of the piece.

This is very important too!! Reading everything from top to bottom and word for word is just a VERY POOR LEARNING HABIT!



Print longer articles or anything that needs to be studied

Just because information is present electronically does not mean that that is the best method for studying the information. Just because it is easier (and much cheaper) for me to get information to you electronically should not make you think that you are being "low tech" when you print what is here.

I am not advocating you print everything as some people do. It can be, if wrongly applied, to the detriment of efficiency. But I am suggesting that depending upon your outcome you will find working in hard copy easier. Here are some examples.

When you want to work with a piece repeatedly. It is sometimes easier to pick up a piece of paper than it is to open a file.

When you want to apply notes to the margin. I do this for almost all pieces that I think are important or related to my work.

When the piece is long and you want to get through the whole thing. It is not easy to remember to open a file and can be hard to motivate that action, while having the article on your desk, with you over lunch, or in your brief case on the weekend, provides more opportunities to get the outcome.

When you want to highlight text for future quick reference. This can help you be much more efficient when you refer back to text later on. There is not much that frustrates me more than looking at black type on a white page in which there no evidence of the time I have spent studying.

When you know you can concentrate better in a different environment. If I have a lot of reading to do I prefer to sit outside or in a coffee shop. Even though I am very task focused for writing at my desk I am too distracted there for reading. I just end up playing video games or watching TV.


Once you have set an outcome and chosen the best approach then go in, get your outcome and stop!

Once you have prepared yourself to get one or more things specifically from you learning session then make it happen, do it.

Quality learning sessions require high energy. When the teaching process is very low energy, such as it is in with information presented over the Internet you have to bring the energy to the process.



In closing ...

The message is take charge of your learning experience. You may wait a long time, or forever, for those who present information on the Internet to do so in a way that supports the learning process of adults.

Decide what it is you want to learn before engaging with the text. Having made decision choose the best approach. Then go in, get it and stop!

The articles you find in my virtual office are good for practising a variety of approaches to learning from text. There are several good stories where reading is the best approach. There are some articles containing strategies and lessons. Those you would scan first for relevance and then print for later study.

I hope you have found the ideas presented here to be useful.

Cheers, Stef



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