Friday, May 22, 2015

Answer: A conversation about learning rapidly...

Learning rapidly... 

Our question this week was how to learn about a new (to you) topic rapidly.  I asked

   1.  What do you do when you need to learn about a topic area very quickly?  

I'm not asking as a way to avoid work, but it happens fairly often that I'm working on a deadline and need to learn something as efficiently as possible.  In other words, how do you become an expert on the subject quickly, or least be able to find relevant information without getting lost in all of the possible documents?

The conversation was actually pretty good, although it was scattered across Facebook comments, G+ comments, the thread of posts here in the blog, and a couple of hallway conversations!  Let me try to pull some of those threads together and close with a thought of my own.

First, let me introduce a couple of technical terms:

a field of interest (get it?)
a domain is the "topic of interest."  That is, field, or the topic area that you want to learn about.  A particular domain might be "how immunosuppressants work" or "what is a perceptron and what are they good for" or "aphasia."  (In the examples below, when you see the word domain, I mean that you should substitute the key terms that describe your domain.  Example:  domain might be "aphasia treatments" -- assuming that's your domain.)

framing is establishing the question(s) that you really want to answer, and setting up the context in which the answer makes sense.  That is, a domain question like "teach me about the Civil War" needs a bit of framing in order to be sensible:  Whose civil war?  When and where was it fought? What do you want to know about that war?  How much detail do you need?  All of that kind of information sets the frame.

a library reference interview happens when you talk to your local reference librarian about what you want to learn.  (Consider doing that as well--the librarians know a bunch of stuff that's really useful, including resources that might take you a while to discover.)  In the interview, you will frame your question and set expectations.  You need to figure out in this discussion when you can stop.  (You're on a deadline, remember?  Assume you'll never learn enough to be a real expert--how do you get to a place where you can write a competent article in that area.)  But if you can't get to a reference librarian easily, you can walk yourself through your own interview.  In short, Know Thyself.

I've taken the conversations I've had this week and organized them into Strategies and Tactics.


* Learn the language / argot of the domain. Learning some search terms that enabled me to structure my search more effectively. Judith writes that....
"Once I had a student who was going to be interviewed for a job at a local transportation museum and had to find information on the trams in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century that were pulled by teams of horses. After searching several different ways, I found in Wikipedia that they are usually called horsecars and searching that one word led me to multiple sources of information, including the variations of "horse cars" and horse-cars." 
Earlier, Henry wrote that:
"Today, I decided to see if I could put a chin-up bar in my attic. What this came down to was determining if there was a thing that would attach a piece of piping to a piece of wood, perpendicularly. Of course, there is -- it's called a pipe flange, which you probably knew, and I applaud your greatness. My point is, as soon as I knew the word, I knew my answer -- yes, and it's going to take a flange or two...."  
Learn those terms!

* Find out who are the relevant / best writers in the domain.  And once you know that, find out what else they've written.  Often, it will be on topic and relevant to your quest.

* Find out the best institutions that work in the domain.  Same idea, except you want to limit your searches to that particular place.  For example, you might find that the team doing the best research is all in the Geophysics department at the University of Pocatello (fictitious example)..... then a site-limited search like [ ] might reveal a lot of things you never thought about.

* Check Google Books for books on the domain.  You might be surprised at how often books are still incredibly useful to learn something quickly.  Pay attention to the table of contents to get a quick lay-of-the-land.  The authors have gone to a lot of trouble to organize a book in terms of all the pieces you need to know about.  Check it out in this example: the table-of-contents for a textbook on aphasia)

* Check YouTube for videos on the domain.  Remember that you can use many of the tricks from regular web-search on YouTube.  (e.g., using context terms to describe what you seek)

* Look for groups of people (blogs, forums, listservs, mailing lists) interested in your domain.  In my previous post I mentioned a couple of tricks around finding blogs, forums, and people selling artifacts in your topic.

* Describe your problem to someone else.  Often, when you have to explain what it is you're trying to learn, you'll realize what the shapes and contours of the domain are... and what you really need to know, and what you really do not know!  

* Look for multiple different sources.  For instance, Google Maps is great, but consider also looking at WikiMiniAtlas, or OpenStreetView.  Likewise, different stories / different authors often give you varying perspectives on the ideas of the domain.  Use that same strategy when doing a comparison across web sites, books, or journals.

* Use your social networks. As I'm mentioned before, sometimes the best way into a field is to reach out to your friends, especially those that have broad-ranging interests or are really well-connected themselves.  Often a post to Facebook or G+ (or your favorite community) can get you the right information very quickly.  (In truth, this is why I lurk on a number of lists...  just so I can learn from them and ask the occasional question.)  Teachers sometimes talk about their PLN (Personal Learning Networks)--it's the same idea--developing and cultivating a group of people that you can ask questions of (and implicitly, also answer their questions too).

* For scholarly/academic articles, check Google Scholar.  A search on a domain in Scholar will often give you the latest and greatest academic work in an area.  Often, it will be a bit TOO technical to be useful to you.  (It happens to me all the time.)  A recent example I did:  [ coral reef bleaching] But you can use Scholar to identify the people and institutions that are doing the best work.  Then you can search for those people and more broad-brush articles they might have written. 


* Check Wikipedia first. Judith again:  "I never rely on Wikipedia alone... but it often has useful links to other sites."  She's right--it's not the ending point for your research, but it has incredible coverage (millions of topics), and sometimes the articles are very well done.  (And sometimes not.  Use your good taste to decide.)  A related topic...

* Check Wikipedia in other languages as well.  Some topics have very different treatments across the various Wikipedias.  Compare and contrast the entries for Leonardo da Vinci in English vs. Italian. That's variation, often useful.

* Use databases that contain content not available through Google.  As I'm talked about before, libraries often have access to proprietary databases, which are useful if they're on the domain of interest.  (For example, the various genealogy databases are very good for that domain of research.)

* Control-F your way through a document using the specialized language you've learned, looking for places where the terms you care about occur.  (Take note that in Chrome, you can see the yellow-bars showing you where everything is in the doc.)

* Take notes.  Several people mentioned that they start taking notes (usually in a Google Doc) whenever the search task starts to become non-trivial.  This is obvious, but it's always surprising how often people don't think about this.  A note doc is handy for stashing names of experts, domain specific terms that you don't know, and the names of institutions that are relevant.

* Find trade associations in the domain.  Hans pointed out that "...I usually try to find an organization or trade association that is working on that specific area. I use keywords like industry trade group, business association, International association or sector association and combine them with the terms of the domain I’m looking for. Also limiting the search to the .org domain is very effective.  Examples:  [uv-led curing trade associations]  or  [uv-led curing]  Another option is to use a directory: e.g., Associations on the Net (From the Internet Public Library) -

* Search for tutorials and lessons on the domain.  When you need to learn something quickly, do some searches where you explicitly search for things like [domain tutorial] or [domain seminar] or [domain training] or [domain lesson] or [domain lecture]  Pro tip:  Sometimes it's really useful to also limit your search to presentations.  Example:  [aphasia filetype:PPT OR filetype:PPTX tutorial]

* Set your information level for what you really need and can really use.  As Debbie and Anne point out, knowing what level of information you're looking for can be really useful.   "...Our subscription [to Encyclopedia Brittanica] offers 3 different levels so students can choose a reading level that is more comfortable for them and is much more visually appealing. We don't have anything against Wikipedia but for some students the layout of Britannica is better."

* Look for a QA site in the domain.  Some domains (like math, programming, English, finance, bicycling, music, cognitive science, etc) have QA sites (question-answering) that are amazingly good.  In particular, check out the StackExchange QA sites for a broadly based set of experts that can answer questions (or look for your question before you ask it out loud).  Some of these sites are pretty junky, but the StackExchange sites are generally very good.

This is a summary of all the conversations I've had this week (plus a few of my own thoughts).

Keep writing, and I'll keep updating this list.  Hope you found this useful!


  1. thanks Dr. Russell, useful & thought provoking.

    1 of 2
    How does one uncover facts… or semblances of truth? Why is 'dis', 'da', 'duh', 'non', etc. prefixes so often associated with information these days?
    You are scratching at a fertile field in need of SearchReSearch — the folks at the IRE gathering may make you an honorary "CarlBob"… ;)

    Am curious what kind of feedback you get from the investigative reporters - what tools do they use most?, what do they find most surprising/useful
    from Google and your presentation? how do they view privacy - theirs and those they are trying to investigate? Do they view their inquiries as being enhanced
    or encumbered by the vast amounts of electronic information/data sets available? What capabilities do they wish they had to make their rather specialized searches more effective?
    What tools do they use to organize their research files? napkins & coffee stained envelopes seem dated.
    Do they ask how to find eMail records?… do they print out hard copies of their own eMails or do they live on twitter?…
    or do they even care, given that reporters may soon be replaced by robots…
    a recent investigative example
    read the 'boot camps'
    NICAR: The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting maintains a library of federal databases, employs journalism students, and trains journalists in the practical skills of getting and analyzing electronic information.
    Turing Test
    he Googled

    say howdy to Mr. Hersh if your paths cross… see first sentence of 1/2.
    when investigators are investigated…
    internet age
    R.J. Hillhouse

  2. 2 of 2
    seems a little Hollywood driven - (your sign challenge seems apropos…)
    @ the 2015 IRE Conference
    1971 seen from 2014
    1971 home
    Media, PA - the old FBI bldg
    the Wiki view
    "This is how we learned of the FBI's war on the Black Panthers and why virtually none of The Weathermen were ever convicted of any crime(as the FBI broke every law in the book in going after them). The files also contained Hoover's actions against MLK, John Lennon, Jim Morrison. Fascinating stuff and the idea that the FBI kept all of this info in Media, Pennsylvania in an unguarded office? I guess they figured no one would ever think to look there."

    also movie driven - via Mr. Eastwood…
    LWD as JEH
    … how would…or, would Google access have changed this? … perhaps J. Edgar would have had his own personal server…?
    perhaps J. Edgar would have been seen in a compassionate light by the GLBT community…?
    ABC seems less than supportive
    Hoover bits

    if you choose the avail yourself of the National Pastime with other fans … (the extent of my investigative inquiry)
    left of the 1st base line, under the Bud Light sign and the gaze of the Phillie Phanatic…
    the location of near by supplies of Bubba Burgers (as seen in the mezzanine ad - to the right of the Bud)
    near Citizens Bank Park

  3. My first option is always Google. But in case you need something else, this article shares 6 options to search for example: Photos or in the past. What do you think?