The Power of Elaboration: Get Creative to Boost your Learning

Our imagination is a remarkable tool but we're never taught how to use it to learn new information. Elaboration helps you access the potential of your imagination and in this post I show you how to use it to to remember what you're studying and have fun along the way.
Nasos Papadopoulos
 “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” - Albert Einstein

My First Day at School 

Do you remember your first day at school? Even though it was close to 20 years ago, I still remember the emotional wrench I felt when my Mum dropped me off, the smell of new books in the classroom, the weight of my new schoolbag and the jigsaw puzzle I played with before all the other children arrived.

The reason I remember this experience so vividly, but can’t remember what I did at 3pm last Wednesday afternoon is because of the intense emotional and sensory nature of the experience, which scientists call episodic or biographical memory.

So what does my first day at school have to do with learning? The brain retains information that it believes is vital for our survival and the richer and more intense an experience is, the more likely we are to remember it.

This doesn’t just help us to retain information, it also helps us to draw links between ideas and deepen our understanding of them.

This process of creating additional layers of meaning is defined by cognitive scientists as elaboration and creates mental cues for later recall and application. This method can be used in a variety of situations, from learning to play a piece of music to memorising lines for a play.

For instance, when learning lines, it’s useful for an actor to feel the emotion of the words, to imagine what facial expression corresponds to a situation and to use his body to reflect what he’s saying.

Similarly, a pianist might visualise the score of the piece she’s playing and imagine writing a note to her self in the margin to go up or down an octave.

Breaking down Elaboration

Elaboration can be broken down into two main components – visceralisation and the use of analogies.

Visceralisation is the process of creating an intense sensory and emotional experience to retain new knowledge – attempting to recreate the conditions that made the first day of school so memorable.

For example, to remember the principle of conduction in physics, imagine the way that your hands are warmed when holding a hot cup of coffee – imagine the liquid sloshing around in your favourite mug, and the smell of your favourite dark roast filling your nostrils.

Using analogies is the process of linking one idea to another, in order to get a better grasp of it and increase our understanding.

For instance in the The Lean Startup Eric Ries links the process of building a business to the process of driving a car, which allows the reader to create mental hooks and relate his ideas to something familiar.

The effective use of analogies is one of the reasons I think this book has become so popular in the startup community and beyond.

Override your Intuition

When dealing with new material, your intuition will be to revert to old habits – underlining and rereading information, copying out speeches and lectures verbatim and trying to finish as quickly as possible.

We all know the feeling of racing through a chapter only to realise we haven’t retained anything we just read, so guard against these habits.

Elaboration feels like a lot of effort initially but once you get started it makes the learning process more effective and enjoyable.

Of course it takes longer to finish a study session if you’re stopping to visceralise and create analogies, but you’ll also be retaining far more information, increasing the results you get from an hour of work.

Joining the dots between different parts of your knowledge starts to give you an idea of how everything is interrelated, which will only increase your curiosity.

The Takeaway

Elaboration is an effective tool for building knowledge and developing our understanding of a subject or skill. By using visceralisation and analogies, we can improve our recall and start to make links with what we already know, making learning more effective and enjoyable.

Try This

1) Relate new information to what you know

When studying a new concept, use analogies to relate it to something you’re familiar with (mind mapping is a great tool for this).

For example, when thinking about the structure of an atom, compare it to the structure of the solar system – just as the sun is at the centre of our solar system with planets orbiting it, so the nucleus is at the centre of the atom with electrons orbiting it. 

2) Explain a new concept to someone

By explaining a concept to a friend or family member in your own words you’re making the concept more personal and strengthening your relationship with it.

Try and make use of visceralisation and metaphors as much as you can in your description. If your friends and family won’t listen, explain it aloud to yourself (but maybe not in a quiet library during exam season).

3) Relate what you learn to your life

Think of situations where you can apply what you’re learning to your everyday life. When an idea has practical value to us and we can link it to our own experience, we’re far more likely to retain it.

For instance, when learning about the permanent income hypothesis in economics, consider how you can use the model to help you evaluate saving and spending decisions in your life.


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