Turtle on log in Costa Rica.

Learning Experiments to Find Your Learning Tools


Learning has a variety of definitions, illustrating how complex it is and how personal it is.  Click on the link above, and see which definition you most gravitate toward.  The following activities and articles are to help you explore how you learn.


As you read for learning, categorize the level of importance of the content.  Is it a key idea that organizes all of the other information you are processing.  Prioritizing information takes time since you are critically analyzing throughout the entire article, book, website, etc.  To do this well, give yourself time to take your time.

Reading Experiment

In a team, select a topic of mutual interest, find a paper that covers the topic well, read it separately to identify the big ideas, then compare results together.  Discuss the differences in your lists of big ideas and how you each came to your conclusions. Finally work together to create one unified list of big ideas.  Compare this to your original list to consider how you might change your categorization process.

Suggested Time: 45-60 minutes after an hour for reading and notes.

'Using a Pencil in Learning' Experiment

Challenging puzzles are a wonderful reminder that one piece of information leads to clues for finding more information, and eventually, through organization, patience, logic, and creativity, it may be solved.  Science is very similar - it is built on layers of discoveries that have led to new ones.

Download the puzzle below and solve (pdfs follow).  

This spatial logic puzzle has simple rules. As you work through the puzzle, consider how you organize your ideas and rules.  Do you draw?  Write?  Create meaningful notation?  Consider how these fit into your learning process.  

Review your process as you look at the solutions.  Are there ways to capture your ideas that are clearer, more efficient and effective?  You want to capture your thoughts concisely and quickly when taking notes, brainstorming, drawing, and even doodling.

Suggested Time: 30-45 min.

The puzzle to solve.

The puzzle to solve.

Note Taking When Reading

 A good place to start is looking at the psychology of taking notes.  This article also shares different styles of note taking, but whatever system you use, it must be useful to you so you may see and explore the critical connections you are working through.  

Tip: add questions along the note margins to follow up on when there is time.  Capturing questions is as important as organizing what already comfortable understanding.


 In a team of two or three, pick an article, read it, take noes, and compare with your peers.  Discuss each of your thought processes as you took notes, and consider how you might incorporate new processes into yours.

Suggested Time: 45-60 minutes after an hour for reading and notes.

Note Taking When Listening

We think much faster than people talk, but we write much slower than spoken words.  I learned how to take notes during class by practicing taking phone messages since answering machines were not invented - nor were e-mail, texting, ...  By taking phone messages, I learned to identify what was important and write only the essential words and numbers - just enough to fill in after the phone call was over.  

Use the following phone calls to practice listening for the big ideas, writing them down in brief yet informative phrases, and filling in detail right after the conversation is over.

Notes taken during a conversation or class should not be picture perfect - if they are, you most likely missed some critical information.

Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes.

Take notes using these "phone calls". 

Replay to see how well your notes captured the essential information.

Practice phone call #1.


Practice phone call #2.


Practice phone call #3.

Distilling to One Set of Notes

 When you want to bring your understanding together as best you can, create one set of notes from your readings, listening (class time), running experiments, analyzing data, and working with simulations.  All of these activities have different challenges for note taking, so they will most likely be different from each other.  You need to bring them together to truly see the important connections and ideas.  Note taking has been one of the most important learning tools for me as a student, scientist, software developer, and teacher, and I hope you find it important for you as well.

Creating one set of notes is the time to break out the colors, the eraser, and the best hand writing to identify how the key ideas connect to each other and to other important concepts.

Depending on how many notes have to be distilled (which is usually a good amount since it is probably is just before a test), this may take 1 to 2 hours to do well.

A page of my notes created to help program the Sun-Earth Connection software in Earth Systems.

A page of my notes created to help program the Sun-Earth Connection software in Earth Systems.


 The ability to observe is fundamental for survival, art, science, business, parenting, sports, and pretty much everything.  And drawing is one of the best ways to improve how to observe.  It slows us down and helps us see detail, proportion, and how the parts fit together.  And it helps in learning!  


How to Beat "Mind Grooving"!  We use the most used pathways in our brain as we process/recall information and relate to our world, which is called mind grooving.  Once we see/use something once or twice, it becomes the default our brain tends to follow.  Drawing helps us observe something for the first time or from a different perspective, so it helps take us out of our mind grooves.

These are two insightful articles on the importance in drawing in our learning:

Learning by Drawing and Rediscovering the Forgotten Benefits of Drawing

Drawing Experiment

Without looking at it, draw a wall in your room from memory.  Then draw it as you look at it.  Wait several days and draw the wall again from memory.  Compare your last drawing to both of your earlier drawings.  Did drawing as you looked at the wall help you see more detail and retain it?

Suggested Time: 20-30 minutes for each of the drawings.


Brainstorming is a way to come up with ideas to solve a challenge, from finding a topic to write about to setting the course of a company for the next 5 to 10 years.  There are many styles, ranging from what an individual can do to teams of people familiar with the challenge.


Think of your hobbies or interests. How can you improve an activity you particularly like?  In teams or by yourself, and without writing anything down, come up with a plan to accomplish the desired improvement.  Now, try it by writing information, ideas, plans, ...  Granted you already thought about your ideas before you began writing, but did writing help you see new connections, come up with new ideas, and bring more organization to your thoughts?

Suggested Time: 45-60 min.


 Who knew a teacher would advocate for doodling? Through the years I have watched a number of very talented students sitting right in front of me during class creating gorgeous doodles while also being wonderfully engaged in the activities we were doing.  And there is evidence that doodling can help you stay tuned into class discussions rather than daydream. As you doodle, you use a different part of your brain, which increases blood flow in that region keeping you more focused because this is also part of the brain that processes the feeling of reward


 Do we really need to create an activity to promote doodling?

Dealing with Uncertainty

What is Research?

I was well into my graduate research exploring how sediment was transported through caves when I realized I didn’t understand what true research was - and it didn’t happen because of my work!  I got involved with exploration caving - truly going where no one had gone before in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (the world’s longest cave). 


When I first tried caving I experienced a "chest compressor" - the passage was so narrow I had to stop, exhale to make my chest smaller so I could inch forward. Our chests are our largest part of our bodies.  But I didn’t hesitate since I had a map, which meant that someone else had gone there before me.  So no problem!

As I was exploring in Mammoth Cave I found myself going down a passage I knew no one had ever been before, and I was in the lead. The passage was getting narrower and narrower, eventually becoming a chest compressor. I found it much harder to motivate myself to inch forward than I did when I had a map.  Would the passage open up?  Would I get stuck?  I had no answers until I kept trying.  And this is when I realized what research was: going where absolutely no one has the answers.

When I worked as a scientist, this understanding was important for me to keep trying even when the passage didn’t open up - I still learned something valuable for my next attempt.

Imagine working on something your entire career and not knowing you were correct! Only now are we proving some of Einstein’s ideas well after he died.  And Alfred Wegener, who proposed a simplified form of plate tectonics (a critically important concept in Earth Systems Science) in 1912, died ridiculed by the scientific community.  But we now know he was correct.  Research scientists aren’t the only ones who live with this uncertainty.  Artists, musicians,  entrepreneurs, and parents all go forward without having the answers until much later (hopefully!).

Mystery Boxes: An Experience in Research

These mystery boxes are a result of my exploration caving.  Experience what it is like to do something without any possibilities of an answer. When the boxes were created I intentionally did not record what was inside.  They are sealed, and I am not able to tell anyone what is inside.  I will open a box after extensive questions and experiments driven by you.  Watch the videos and e-mail your ideas for new experiments.  

Suggested Time: 45-60 min for first video.

Puzzles, Revisted

Puzzles as a Research Experience

You may have already done this puzzle above, but we can use it in a different way as a research tool.  After you solve this, try making a puzzle on your own using two blank templates (pdf is below).  On the first create the solution, then create the puzzle to be solved using the second.

What questions does this open up about the puzzle?  This is a critical form of research called modeling.  Creating a working model of reality helps us think about and explore the complex and interacting processes involved in new and important ways.

Some of my questions when I make puzzles:

  • How difficult is it?  Can it be solved?  How will I be able to figure these questions out? 
  • Does it have more than one solution?  How will I know?  There can be more than one solution for some cases.  What if only one number was placed on the puzzle?  There would be a very large number of solutions for that one puzzle.  How many numbers do I need to give so that there is only one solution?
  • Do I have to give numbers only along the edges? This is fun to try.  If you do, does it change the feel of the original game?

Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes if the puzzle has been solved already.

Template to make your own puzzle.

Template to make your own puzzle.

Solo or Team?

 At times there may be benefits working in small teams, although there are times working alone is critical for learning too.  Learning how to ask questions requires identifying where you first got stuck on a concept or process.  You are now more responsive to listening to help.  And for those doing the helping, it requires intensive listening to get into the questioner's thought process and see the problem from this new perspective.  Remember mind grooving from earlier?  Helping others is a great way to get out of your existing groove to see new pathways to what you are exploring.

Seals swimming in waves at Cape Cod.

Seals swimming in waves at Cape Cod.


There is ample evidence that hand writing notes (not typing!), drawing, doodling, and working in a supportive environment help people learn more deeply and efficiently. It may appear to take longer, but spending more time to learn it later is the truly inefficient part.

Sunset in central North Carolina.

Sunset in central North Carolina.