How to organize information: The best methods for lifelong learning

Have trouble finding or managing your collected content? Discover the most effective ways to organize information and why order is essential for learning.

How to organize information: The best methods for lifelong learning

“Learning something new is like going to a place you have never been before, pushing boundaries, going further and growing in the process.” — National Geographic, Explorer Mindset

Self-learners are a lot like adventurers. Our quest for knowledge leads us down a long and winding path. There are multiple points of interest to discover, endless routes to take, and various souvenirs to collect along the way.

In the same way that the right equipment is crucial for successfully navigating an adventure, having an effective system for collecting and organizing information is vital for learning.

Organizing information makes it easier to retrieve it efficiently and effectively. This guide will examine the concept of information organization, discuss why structure is essential when gathering a large amount of information, and outline the most effective knowledge organization methods.

What is information organization?

How to organize information

Our ability to organize information goes back as far as the invention of writing. The oldest written records date from 3200 BCE in Egypt. An attempt to collect them soon followed in libraries and archives in Mesopotamia's early civilization.

This early form of document organization paved the way for today's organizational frameworks. Information organization, sometimes called "knowledge organization," is a method for arranging and classifying data by listing, labeling, categorizing, or describing it.

When we need to purposefully seek information, a framework is essential. Without an information system, it would be incredibly complicated to locate anything. It might even be impossible. Could you imagine finding an office in downtown New York with no building numbers or street names? Or searching for a book in the library if it were not categorized?

Organizing information for learning

As lifelong learners, we depend on information. Every day, we rely on our knowledge to solve problems, connect with others, further our careers, or simply for entertainment. We’re constantly bombarded with information, which we consume either consciously or unconsciously. Even as you read this article, you are absorbing information.

For self-learners, information organization is a practical tool for structuring independent learning. Research indicates that managing information effectively leads to sustainable results, helps students achieve their goals, and enhances both a learner's performance and growth.

We can organize our learning by gathering all relevant information about a specific subject and arranging it orderly and efficiently. The end goal is to create a system that helps learners collect, analyze, and store new information.

Well-organized information for educational purposes should be:

  • Easily accessible: It should be easy to find if you need to refer to it later.
  • Easy to read: It needs to be clear and understandable when rereading it.
  • Easy to share: It should be formatted so anyone can easily exchange it.

Organizing information according to these criteria makes new information easier to process and assimilate.

Why organizing information is important

Bright orange and yellow boxes organizing information

Every aspect of life relies on organization. Our closets are arranged to help us find what we need, and traffic patterns are structured to make travel fast and safe. Even nature follows organized patterns.

As we seek knowledge in the digital age, organization becomes even more crucial. Our society is suffering from information overload — a simple search for a subject can reveal thousands of web pages of information. Finding accurate data from relevant sources is challenging, and tracking various references is cumbersome when scattered across multiple media.

Too much access to information can be stressful for learners, among other consequences like anxiety, memory loss, and low productivity. Researchers have found that unmanaged stress caused by information overload reduces our ability to learn — but if handled correctly, it can actually enhance learning.

The value of organizing information

According to academic research, organizing our information has many benefits. For example, in “Keeping Found Things Found,” research professor William Jones asserts that properly managed information can help us accomplish four key things:

  • Clarifying our goals
  • Finding alternative ways to achieve them
  • Achieving them faster
  • Understanding where we are in relation to the big picture

Additionally, in "The Organization of Information: Fourth Edition," the authors compare our reasons for organizing information with those found in the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR). According to this theory, we manage our resource collections to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Find: Locating information matching specific criteria.
  • Identify: Verifying that a piece of information is what you were looking for or discerning the difference between similar things.
  • Select: Choosing the best resource for our needs.
  • Obtain: Getting access to the information.
  • Explore: Discovering relevant information and learning more about the subject.

By understanding these benefits of organization, you can create a valuable learning framework that will meet your needs.

A framework for organizing information

How to organize information: 5 Ws and H blocks

Just as an explorer plans before embarking on an expedition, you must know your learning goals before beginning research. A clear understanding of your goal will help you decide what information to learn and how to arrange it in a logical order in an organization system.

You can uncover important aspects of your goals using the Five Ws and H of information gathering. For example, you might ask yourself:

  • Who: Who will have access to the information? Will this information be used only by you or by others? Who will use your finished product (are you writing for an audience or designing for a user)?
  • What: What is your goal (is learning just the first step toward achieving something bigger)? What do you need to know? What format is required?
  • Where: Where is your preferred source of information (in print, online)? Where is the best source? Where will the completed work be used?
  • When: When will you locate the information? When will you need it again (just once or regularly)? When will it help you achieve your goal?
  • Why: Why do you need this information (to establish a knowledge base or give credibility to an idea)? Why is it helpful? Why does your goal matter?
  • How: How do you want the information used (for reference, as part of a collection)? How often will it be available to you? How will you present your completed project?

The 5 ways to effectively organize information

Richard Saul Wurman is regarded as the father of information architecture and a key figure in information theory. In “Information Architects,” he introduced a system called LATCH, which he adapted from his previous book, “Information Anxiety.”

Wurman explains his theory by breaking down the LATCH acronym — “Information may be infinite, however … The organization of information is finite as it can only be organized by LATCH: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, or Hierarchy.”

He explains that in any case, there are only five ways to effectively organize information:

  1. Location: This method arranges information according to a geographic or physical location and is widely used for orienting or giving directions. Examples include maps, training manuals, and repair instructions.
  2. Alphabet: The alphabet is universally identifiable, straightforward, and convenient to use, especially when handling a lot of information. Examples include company directories, dictionaries, and encyclopedias.
  3. Time: In this format, information is organized to be displayed step-by-step or in chronological order. Examples include television program listings, historical timelines, and itineraries.
  4. Category: This method groups entities by categories based on similar characteristics or relatedness. Examples include books in a library, supermarkets, and online retail stores.
  5. Hierarchy (or Continuum): This approach organizes data according to a set of attributes, such as price, size, or weight. Examples include search engine results, sports averages, and Top 10 lists.

The best method of organizing information

The best method for organizing information depends on the nature of the data itself. For example, locations are often best arranged on a map geographically, while an extensive list of books is best arranged alphabetically.

To choose the best information management system for your research, consider the qualities of a practical framework. Here are six traits of a successful framework you can use to measure your method's effectiveness:

  • It has a distinct purpose. Frameworks should organize information around a single topic or question.
  • It identifies essential information and eliminates the unnecessary. An effective plan should prioritize the critical information and remove the rest.
  • It's easy. The method should be simple and easy to use.
  • It’s useful. A good framework should make identifying relationships relevant to your topic easy.
  • It encourages further learning. An easy-to-understand approach should lead to better comprehension.
  • It enables communication. Information should be organized to allow relationships and concepts to be easily identified.

Organizing by association is the key

How to organize information: ABLE

Life is a process of learning and adapting. During childhood, the human brain develops schemas, mental models that help us comprehend the world around us. Without the ability to associate ideas, basic inferences like the danger of fire would threaten our lives.

As we learn more about the world, we integrate new information with what we already know, and our associations mature. We acquire knowledge in two ways:

  • Absorbing information from direct experience
  • Generating new insights based on reasoning and imagination

These cognitive processes suggest that information shouldn't be arranged in hierarchical structures. Learning requires gathering information and connecting entities through relationships, so the data should be organized similarly — by association.

And research agrees. Associations and concepts are at the core of many formal systems developed for organizing documents and information. For example, records about birds are often organized in the same way ornithologists classify the actual birds. This method acts as a conceptual map, providing the learners with an easier way of discovering and retrieving information.

Libraries have used this approach since 1933. Henry Evelyn Bliss, the creator of the Bibliographic Classification, argued that “To make the classification conform to the scientific and educational organization of knowledge is to make it more practical.”

Simplify your learning journey with organized information

As adventurers pursuing knowledge, organizing and planning are vital to reach our destination. Don't let a lack of organization derail your learning. The more meaningfully you arrange information, the easier it will be for you to remember, locate, and use.

The benefit of a self-learning journey is that you decide your path — the way you organize your information is ultimately up to you. As long as you have curiosity, the willingness to try, and discipline to stay the course, you will reach your destination.


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