There’s a popular adage in the engineering academic community: to really learn a subject, you have a teach a class in it. It’s not a new idea. In his biography, aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman states two different versions of it, each connected to a different colleague:
I learned this approach from Prandtl, who once said: “The only way to learn a subject is to give a class in it.”
I also recalled that Hilbert had said there were two methods of learning a new branch of science — either write a book about it, or give a lecture. It seemed to me that lecturing is safer than writing. If you make a mistake in a book, you will have to eat your words forever. Not so with a lecture, where if need be you can afterwards declare you were misinterpreted.Theodore von Karman and Lee Edson, The Wind and Beyond
The key here — whether teaching a class or writing a book — is to engage deeply with the material; that’s the only way to understand a subject well enough to communicate it. During that process of engagement, you will summarize, rephrase, and distill the information into a concise, discrete form that is unique to you.
Most of us don’t have the time — or motivation — to teach a semester-long course in every subject we want to learn. So how can we get the same effect without the hassle of preparing an entire course?
As a graduate student, I established the habit of writing a post for my blog five times a week. Each day I searched out a new research paper or phenomenon; I read up about it and then synthesized that information into a short, abstract-length post written for general audiences.
I thought little of this habit initially; it was something I did for fun because I cared about fluid dynamics and wanted to share it with others. But over the course of a couple years, I was learning — and retaining — a surprising amount of material about my subject area. So much so that my colleagues began coming to me with questions when they were trying to find research related to issues they were encountering. They had noticed my developing expertise, even though I had not. I didn’t start valuing my knowledge until I was using it to help others find connections they were missing.
If I had simply read a research paper each day and then set it aside, I would not have been able to point my coworkers toward the work they needed. But because I had engaged with the ideas, written about them, and grown my own sense of how each subject connected, I could find in minutes research they’d spent hours searching for. The time I’d spent reading and writing turned into an investment — one that continues to pay me dividends to this day.
Now, not everyone is inclined to start a blog about fluid dynamics, and that’s absolutely fine! The truth is you don’t have to write publicly to benefit from writing regularly. Instead, write for your future self. Start small. When you read a journal article, take notes in your own words on the key ideas of the research and how it relates to the work you’re doing. For a great guide to getting started with this habit, check out How to Make Notes and Write , which I reviewed here. It’s free, geared toward students, and can get you started without the distractions that searching the Internet for “personal knowledge management” will offer.
Whether you want to write for a public audience or simply write notes for your future self, the very act of writing about a topic inherently tests you and refines your knowledge. The better you are able to understand your topic, the better the chance that you can communicate it — whether that ultimately comes in a written, visual, or auditory format.
As an added bonus, when you sit down to produce your own journal article, presentation, or research poster, you won’t be starting from a blank page. Instead, you can take what you’ve already written about the topic and repurpose it.
If you need some ideas to help develop a regular habit of writing, stay tuned for my upcoming post. Afraid you’ll forget to check in? Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll never miss a post.
(Image credit: M. Baumeister)