17 August 2012 - 10:28 am

Why I can’t learn from books

It’s been a few years since I graduated from university – three years actually. And, to be honest, I was never really the academic type. Luckily for me, my course (Journalism Studies, which is excellent here by the way) was very practical and I was able to get stuck in, which is 100% the best and easiest way for me to learn things. 

After graduation, I set up a web design and digital marketing company and put into practice some of the skills I had gained through a web journalism module and through some work experience in my final year of university. Again, I found my skills developing through working on projects, solving problems as they arose, and working very very late into the night. I tried reading books on search engine optimisation and web design and soon gave up when I realised I was reading pages and pages, looking back and thinking: ‘I can’t actually remember what any of that was about.’

Faze magazine, part of a magazine journalism module

The magazine cover I designed during my course at TUoS. Skills gained through workshops, and trial and error.

But my methods for learning, although probably not very efficient, sort of suited the industry I was in. Once I had learned something by working though problems and with critical thinking, I would never forget that skill. It became easy, something that was second nature, and something I could explain to other people without really thinking about it. The only reading I did were blogs about new technologies and changes in the industry, which were written in such a non-academic way with such short snippets of information, that I was able to take in the main points and move on.

So, when three years later I find my role at USE evolving from very web and digital focused into a far more holistic marketing role, I figure ‘that’s OK. I’ll just learn it all in the same way I learned all that other stuff.’ Except, my 35 hours a week of working time are far more valuable these days. There is far more to be done and far less time to do it. Running your own business, you work to your own schedule; you spend as much time on a project as you needs to get it done; you don’t get told off for building up too much flexi… it’s tough, you obviously still have to manage your time. But when you first start out and the customers aren’t exactly breaking your door down, you have enough time to learn through doing, make mistakes and try new things until something works.

These days, in a demanding role, there is no time for that. So when I realised I would have to do a professional development course to increase the breadth of my knowledge, part of me was excited, but part of me was terrified. I tried to rationalise – ‘I was young at university… I wasn’t really bothered… I’m more mature now… surely now I’ll be a better student…’ – but, deep down, I was a bit worried there would be a lot of reading, a lot of trying to force my eyes open and focus on the words on the pages, and a lot of frustration at my inability to learn from books. And I was sort of prepared for that. I was totally prepared to torture myself continuously over potentially a two year period in order to gain the knowledge I need to be better at my job. I bought 3kg of strong coffee.

So, imagine my relief when I received my login details for my course and was faced with not endless word documents of course materials and mind maps, not an impossible reading list and web resources. But podcasts! And videos! And Powerpoint presentations! And tasks to help you apply your learning! Hurray! Because that’s the main problem with the books thing I think; I need the information to be in the context of my own work. The theory feels useless to me on its own. I need to be prompted to figure out how that theory can be applied to USE. I’m not motivated by the aim of passing exams; I’m motivated by the aim of actually learning things.

After speaking to my colleague, Anna, about this, we ended up having a pretty in depth discussion about the different ways people learn. It turns out she’s pretty much the opposite to me in many ways in terms of learning methods, which is interesting – I had always thought people who were good at learning from books were just more motivated/better at torturing themselves. Apparently not.

So I thought it might be interesting to hear your opinions on learning. What do you find is the best way to take in information? Do you have any processes you use to help you learn? Have you ever even thought about trying different methods and new ways of thinking about things?

Please leave your comments below. I’m truly interested in what you have to say on this subject.


  1. Hi Samantha,

    I loved reading books and learning new things. But what I noticed was that I could not really recall what I just read.

    That resulted in spending way too much time reading (but still enjoying it).

    Then I learned about mind mapping. This simple method of taking notes changed a lot for me.

    So perhaps you can use mindmaps as well to summarize the podcasts and video material. Let me know if I can assist you with that!

  2. Dina says:

    I take information in different ways books as well blogs, presentations etc. would diffentley agree that acadamic books are abit confusing and boring. I remember once I revised for my exam using YouTube only!

Leave a comment

  • About the author

    Samantha Deakin

    1:1 coach and mentor for tech and high growth potential companies in the early stages, supporting them from concept through prototype, through to investment and beyond.