Study Skills 101: Remembering What You Have Read
Cramming is one thing, but remembering what you have studied is another. In this guide you’ll learn understand, remember, and learn what you read, so you can succeed on tests and writing assignments drawn from the reading.
It’s natural to simply read a chapter from beginning to end, but it’s not the most effective way to read, learn, and understand the content you’re reading.
Most experts recommend active or critical reading. If you’re not doing something to be actively engaged in your reading, you will probably find that you have to reread before the test, maybe even multiple times. You won’t learn or retain much if you simply read.
The vast majority of experts recommend annotating your books as the best form of active reading—in other words, making notes in the margins.
What exactly do you write when you annotate? To some extent, the content of your annotations isn’t as important as the active engagement of writing the notes. However, here are some suggestions:
- Thoughts on connections between this book and others you’ve read
- Restatements in your own words of the thesis statement of each paragraph or section
- Definitions of unfamiliar words
- Your own system of symbols to mark important passages, such as exclamation points for key points and question marks for points you have questions about
- Comments of agreement or disagreement with ideas in the text
- Your own ideas inspired by the text
- Other examples of concepts discussed in the text
The second-most highly recommended system for actively engaging with reading is highlighting. Learn to be selective and discriminating when you highlight; otherwise, the important points won’t stand out. Scholars recommend highlighting as little as 10 to 15 percent of a page and as much as 50 percent—but certainly no more than that. If you tend to highlight toward the higher end of that range, at least try this visualization: imagine that the words on the page are flowing into your highlighter and through your arm, into your neck, and into your brain. Surveying the chapters can also help you to be a more discriminating highlighter. Once you preview what’s in a chapter, you have a much better idea of what’s important enough to be highlighted.
You can also actively engage with the assigned reading by synthesizing your textbook reading with lecture notes you’ve taken in class. Try to integrate your notes from both sources into a “big picture” perspective. Compare the reading with class notes. What are the areas of agreement and disagreement? Where are the gaps? What part of the reading did your professor stress in lectures? This approach is especially helpful when you know that the teacher places equal emphasis in tests on the reading and class lectures.
When the main objective of a reading assignment is a written response or writing assignment about it, two effective techniques for actively engaging in the reading are brainstorming and freewriting.
Brainstorming entails making a list of everything you can think of about the reading and your reaction to it. What do you already know about this topic? How do you feel about it? What is new for you? This brainstormed list can be a jumping-off point for a paper about the assigned reading.
The idea behind freewriting is to just sit down and write for 15 minutes straight. The first step is closely akin to brainstorming. Write down as many thoughts about the reading as you can, but instead of putting them down in a list format, write them roughly in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Pay no attention to writing correctly, and don’t go back to make revisions. Simply endeavor to get as many words down about the reading as possible within a period of about 15 minutes, trying not to pause. The resulting piece of writing most likely will be a throwaway, but it might contain some good ideas that you can use in the piece of writing assigned about the reading.
Reading techniques vary a bit by subject. Here are a few tips for reading texts in specialized areas:
- Math: Read the text in order because math competency builds on what you’ve already learned. Pay attention to illustrations. Make notes of formulas, proofs, theorems, definitions, and the like. Note cards are great for this purpose. Work as many sample problems as you can, even if they’re not assigned as homework. Allot extra time for reading a math book if you are not strong in math.
- History: Look for timelines and summaries of important events. Make particular note of causes of historical occurrences, as well as their outcomes. Does the author present competing interpretations for these causes and effects? See if the reading conveys a feel for the historical period it discusses. Try to discern the social context of the period. Practice comparing various historical periods. Pay special attention to maps and illustrations.
- Literature: Devote particular attention to the six standard elements of novels and stories: characters, setting, time, problem or conflict, events, and solution or resolution.
The preceding methods will help you engage actively with your reading assignments and learn, but to truly remember what you read and save yourself time when studying, add even more power to your reading techniques. Here’s how to kick your reading and memory of your reading into high gear:
- Reread: The more you read your assignments, the more you will remember them. Some experts suggest reading a chapter twice and then reading it again before a test. While this technique is definitely effective, it is time-consuming, especially if you read slowly. It’s more efficient to reread chapter subheadings and key passages (such as passages you’ve highlighted or annotated), or reread the notes you’ve taken outside the text, such as on note cards.
- Make your own study guide: An extension of the concept of composing questions about your reading, this technique involves creating a set of possible test questions and answers and studying from those. Determine what your professor is likely to ask, compose questions, and write the answers under them. Study from your study guide until you feel you know it well. Then create a version that omits the answers and see how well you do answering the questions. Those you miss are the ones you need to study more.
- Use note cards as flash cards: If you chose to take notes on cards, you can now use those as flash cards to test your memory of the reading.
- Recite and teach material to others: Many experts swear by the effectiveness of reciting important parts of the reading orally[md]not reading aloud, but reciting section summaries you’ve composed yourself or questions and answers you’ve posed about the reading. Since you might find it awkward to recite aloud with people around, you may want to find a private place. In the same vein, teaching the material to others can dramatically boost your memory of it. Study groups are an excellent setting for doing so. If all else fails, consider teaching concepts to your dog or one of your stuffed animals.
- Consider improving your reading speed: While it may seem strange to discuss increasing reading speed in this section, studies show that reading faster actually boosts comprehension and memory. You’d think that the opposite would be true[md]that you’d comprehend more if you slow down and take your time[md]but it’s not, because you tend to lose concentration when you read slowly. Not everyone is comfortable with a faster reading speed. It takes some getting used to, but if you find that slow reading is making it impossible for you to complete all your reading assignments, you should be able to find a speed-reading course at your college, nearby, or even through the Internet.
- Visualize: As you come across a concept in your reading, make a mental picture of it. For example, if you will be tested on human digestion, visualize the digestive process in your mind. Everyone visualizes to a certain extent, but to commit a concept to memory, really concentrate and create a detailed mental picture.
- Draw concepts: The next step beyond visualizing is to draw pictures of concepts. This technique will especially help you if you are a visual learner.
Armed with these techniques you will be able to retain just about anything you read. Good luck, and happy studying!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., and Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.