Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Reading & Remembering


How can I read this many pages? 

What is your first reaction when you look at the reading lists for your subjects? Is it something like: ‘How on earth am I going to get through all that?’ 

When you add up the pages of books, chapters, articles, etc., it comes to a raw total which would be difficult to just get through, let alone remember, organize, and synthesize. 

SO—how do you manage to get through your reading, and retain what you have read? 

How to remember what you read 

One of the basic principles of memory is that the quality of memory is related to the quality of your interaction with what you are trying to remember. If you have organized, dissected, questioned, reviewed and assessed the material you are reading, it will sit more firmly in your memory. 

Why do you think it is so easy to remember the contents of a novel or an article about something you are really interested in? It is because you get involved personally in the events and images the text portrays. You can harness some of the same memory potential in academic reading by adopting a particular kind of involved ‘active reading’. 

Learn to use your own cognitive strengths—visual, oral-aural, systematic, etc.—to create memorability in your reading. Imagine, visualize, recite, act out your academic material, get it out of the dry text-on-page (or screen) context and put some real life into it. 

A final hint—don’t take notes while you are reading. Divide your chapters into sections, read a section, then close the book and write a summary of what you just read. Compare what you wrote to what’s in the book. Using your memory this way will make it stronger, and correcting what you got wrong or left out of your summary will also strengthen your memory of those points.  

Another bonus to reading in anticipation of writing a summary, is that your reading will improve as it becomes more analytical and conscious of ‘key points’.  

Reading academic texts 

Academic reading is not suited to the same approach as you would use to read novels or an article in Fishing & Hunting News. If you use the same approach, you could spend hours reading and then not have a clue what you read (does that sound familiar?). Instead, think about the following: 

  • Don’t feel that you must read everything on the reading list.
    Use the reading list as a guideline. Material on the list will often cover much of the same ground, a list may sometimes have alternative items to cover different interests or library limitations, and some of the items on the list will be ‘optional’ to the extent that you can pass over reading them.
  • Be selective.
    Check through the items on your reading list. Which are basic texts, and which are more detailed? (Will you need basic information or more specific information for your assignment?) Which are the most accessible to you? (Texts which are crystal clear to one person may be incomprehensible to another, and vice versa—this is not a matter of ‘intelligence’, but of a preference for a particular presentation and style). Which are reasonably available? (It is no good pinning your hopes on a book if there is one copy in the library and 300 students wanting it.)
  • Set a realistic time frame for any reading task.
    Do not read any longer than you can concentrate. It doesn’t matter if your attention span is short—just set your tasks accordingly.
  • Never read without specific questions you want the text to answer. If you want your reading to stay in your memory, you must approach your text with a list of questions about the particular information you are after, and search the text for the answers to those questions. Don’t just read with the hope that an answer will appear.
  • Never start reading at page 1 of the text.
    If there is a summary, a conclusion, a set of sub-headings, or an abstract, read that first, because it will give you a map of what the text contains. You can then deal with the text structurally, looking for particular points, not just reading ‘blind’ and so easily getting lost.
  • Read only as much as you need to get the information you are after.
    For example, if a piece of information you need is in the abstract of an article, why read the whole article unless you have time to spare? If a point is clear from reading a summary, is there any benefit in reading through the complete text of a chapter? If you are interested in the overall findings of a study, do you really need to read the methodology and results sections? Always keep in mind what you need, what is relevant to the question you are asking the text.
  • Don’t panic if you cannot get hold of a particular text.
    Information may be found in various places. Think about looking further afield and being creative in your information searches. You can always ask a librarian for help.

Remembering what you read 

If you follow the points above, you will find that you take in a lot more than you would if you just dived into the text. One of the basic principles of memory is that the quality of memory is related to the quality of your interaction with what you are trying to remember. Obviously, if you have organized, dissected, questioned, reviewed and assessed the material you are reading, it will sit more firmly in your memory, and be more accessible to you when you are tested on it. 

Why is it so easy to remember the contents of an article about something you are really interested in, or the even more complex contents of a good novel? The answers might have something to do with interest, not having to read them, etc., but it also has a great deal to do with the sort of interaction the reader has with such material. For example, when you read a novel or story you are not just dealing with text—you are getting involved personally in the events and images the text portrays. You feel sad or happy or outraged at what happens, and you probably see the events and scenes described as clearly as if you were seeing it all on film. 

 You may feel like crying over a book on economics or neurophysiology, but the reasons will be very different to those with a good novel! However, you can harness some of the same memory potential in academic reading by adopting a particular kind of ‘active reading’. 

Learn to use your own cognitive strengths—visual, oral-aural, systematic, etc.— your reading. Imagine, visualize, recite, act out your academic material, get it out of the dry text-on-page context and put some real life into it. Applying your growing knowledge to the day’s news headlines can be enormously helpful, and so can telling people about the understanding you are developing about issues that come up in conversation.