You know your mom so well that you can predict what she will scream at you when she finds out that you forgot to study for the test. You love basketball so much that you memorized the final scores of every championship game since professional basketball started. Yet… for some reason you can’t seem to remember much of what you read for school. Why is that? Well, just like how your familiarity with your mom allows you to predict her words and how your love for basketball motivates you to remember historical facts, learning to be familiar with how things are written will help you recognize significant features of books, stories and articles.
The following 10 tips will help you to retain more information from what you read.
1. Outline the Material Before Reading It
Textbooks have chapter titles and section headings. Their content is separated into orderly compartments that are connected to each other. Novels, however, often only have chapter numbers and not further subsections. Outlining a textbook chapter on paper or on a word processing program allows you to keep in mind the main point of each section. Writing 1-2 sentences or key words about each section will produce an outline that will quickly jog your memory in the future regarding the contents of the chapter. Outlining novels are harder but still possible. Study guides that outline the main events of the book will be helpful for you to take notes about key events in each chapter.
2. You Can Read Faster If You’re Already Familiar With the Material
If you are pressed for time but have to read multiple different types of books or material, start with the material that you are most familiar with. You will be able to better understand and process a subject that you’re somewhat familiar with. Less energy will be required of you to retain information in this area.
3. The Kind of Book You Are Reading Changes Your Retention Strategy
Textbooks often have key words and key concepts. When pressed for time, at least read the paragraphs surrounding the key word. Take notes while you read. Spend the extra effort to write down the page number on which the key word or concept was found. This will make it easier for you to go back to the right location in the book later on.
Novels are trickier than textbooks, because they are written as continuous stories that have backstories and hidden meanings from earlier in the book. Only reading text surrounding key events in the novel runs the risk of making a claim that makes it obvious that you didn’t read the whole book. However, when pressed for time using a study guide that explains key events in the book will allow you to know which sections or chapters to read.
4. Study Guides Help You Get More Out of the Material
Novels are often long and have hidden meanings that are missed unless you are used to knowing what to look for. Having a broad understanding of the story line and key characteristics of the main characters before you read the book will be very helpful in retaining more information. Study guides, such as SparkNotes, MonkeyNotes, and CliffNotes, are useful for this purpose. However, make sure that you don’t plagiarize their analysis of the book. Your English teacher will likely be familiar with these study guides, so use them as a guide, not as your main source of ideas and opinions. Study guides describe the main themes, plots, subplots, characters, and events that are in a novel. Knowing this ahead of time will help you recognize important moments. However, they also remove the suspense that would otherwise surprise you if you read the book from the beginning.
5. Have Questions in Mind as You Read
Whether or not you use a study guide, knowing what to look for while you read helps you interact with the book in ways that make you retain more information. Ask your teacher ahead of time what themes you should pay attention to while reading. This applies to novels, excerpts and articles. If you have questions about what events, objects, characters and behaviors fit into a theme such as a teenager’s “coming of age,” (which is the process of growing up and maturing) you will be more likely to notice them while you read.
6. Highlight Key Words and Pages
Modern books are not ancient manuscripts that crumble upon touch, so if you have your own copy of the book, feel free to write in it and bend the corner (called “dog-earing”) of pages that contain significant information. Underline key phrases and circle key words. Draw brackets along the side of paragraphs that contain important information. This will make finding important information much easier when you flip through the book again later.
7. Annotate the Reading Material
Beyond underlining and circling words, jot down comments in the margins. Do you agree with the author? If not, why? What other book, or part of this book, does this paragraph remind you of? What would be the alternative perspective? What assumptions does the author make in order for his/her claim to be true? Taking the time to wrestle with the information in a book will increase the likelihood of you remembering the book’s contents.
8. Guide Your Eye Sight With Your Finger
A useful strategy for remembering what you read is to pay more attention to it. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to let your mind wander off while you are reading words. Most people have done this before. You read an entire paragraph, and hear yourself saying the words in your head, but don’t remember a thing about what you just read. The reason is because our minds are easily distracted. TV and internet have shortened our attention spans, so we need to train our minds to focus. Using a pen or your finger to guide your eyes along sentences helps your brain focus on the text. Using a bookmark or piece of paper to cover all lines underneath the sentence that you are reading also helps your eyes focus.
9. Read the First and Last Sentences When Pressed for Time
When you are pressed for time and have lots left to read, a short cut that sometimes works is reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph. However, this is more applicable to textbooks and non-fiction, than it is to novels. When you get to college and are flooded with reading assignments, this technique might come in handy. However, this technique relies on the author having followed the convention of starting off each paragraph with a topic sentence that frames the whole paragraph. It also assumes that the author summarizes each main idea in a paragraph, or comes to a conclusion, before starting a new idea in the next paragraph.
10. Read Literary Criticism or Reviews of the Material Beforehand
If study guides are not available, which is often the case for articles and modern books, than reading reviews by other authors and readers will be helpful for getting an overview of the book. Since articles critiquing books often aren’t meant to comprehensively cover an entire book, it helps to read multiple analyses from different critics. Different critics have different cultural backgrounds, grudges to rub, or areas of training, so their critiques highlight different parts of a book or article.
For textbooks in math and science, an alternative to criticisms and book reviews, is to find short articles online that explain a subject to students. There are also many educational videos online and on YouTube that give great overviews of scientific subjects, which will better prepare you to retain more information when you read a textbook, because you understand more of it.
(This article first appeared on ThinkTank Learning and is reprinted here with permission from the author.)