This is part 3 of the series “How to read more and remember what you read”. On this post we’ll be focusing on Strategies to remember what you read.
Reading Time: 9 minutes
You already know how to read more. In the past two parts of this series we covered strategies to help you find the time to read, improve your concentration, and increase your reading speed. But it doesn’t end there, we don’t want to finish books just for the sake of it or to tell our friends how many books we’ve read this year. Ultimately, we want to remember what we read and use it to improve our lives. That is the true value of reading.
How to remember what you read
Priming your mind to learn
The first strategy is to get your mind in a state where it’s easier to understand and absorb the information you are about to read. The goal is to have a general idea of the subject and explore just enough to become curious and excited about it.
- Read a short article on the subject. This is something you can do to get an overview of what you will learn before you start reading the book.
- Look at the table of contents to know how the book is organized.
- If the book or chapters have introductions and summaries, read those first, If you don’t like to get too far ahead, read only the summary of the first chapter, then read the chapter. Follow by reading the summary of the second chapter and then read that chapter, and so on.
- Skim the chapters to start forming an idea of what you will be learning.
What we are looking to do is have our brains asking questions and getting curious about the subject. Our minds don’t like unresolved problems or unanswered questions (specially when we find them interesting), it’s our nature to try to fill that knowledge gap. This curious and inquisitive state is ideal for learning and creativity, it focuses our attention and prepares us to think and reflect on what we’ll read.
Underlining and Taking notes
I used to never underline a book or write on it, I thought it was disrespectful to do so. Today is the opposite, all my books are full of notes and underlinings, I feel it’s disrespectful not to do it. Why? Because you want to learn from the book, not just read it. That’s how you really respect the book. Taking notes, writing on the margin and underlining will help you reinforce and remember the information. Don’t feel bad about underlining and writing on the book, great minds in history did it all the time.
Underlining or highlighting
The concept is simple, underline or highlight the main ideas and any information you like or find valuable. Underlining forces you to stop and focus on what you are underlining; this extra attention works as a boost for your memory.
To avoid underlining too much try to do it after you finish the paragraph. If you do it as you read -specially if you don’t know anything about the subject- you will think that everything is important and worth underlining. So finish the idea first, understand what is being said, and then underline what’s important or want to remember.
There are different kinds of notes. Sometimes you transcribe or summarize what you just read, other times you write questions, observations, ideas, and even have discussions with the author. All of these reinforce what you read in different ways. Summarizing, for example, helps you understand and encode the information, while observations helps you connect with ideas and knowledge you already have.
For your general knowledge, when you write notes at the margin of the book they are called “Marginalia”. If you prefer to write them in a notebook where you keep all other notes, observations, ideas, etc this notebook is usually referred as a commonplace book. (More on common place book later in this article)
I encourage you to make all types of notes, write everything that comes to mind as you read, either on the margin or in your commonplace book. Don’t rely on thinking you will remember your ideas later, you won’t, write them right away.
I do want to emphasize that you write down what you want to remember. I once wrote a note at a seminar that read “I know this”, when I read it back weeks later I had no idea what it was. I felt angry for writing such a useless note and bowed not to do that again.
Years later, I wrote the same “I know this” note at a lecture. I immediately remembered my past mistake and thought of changing it, but I felt like this idea was truly unforgettable. I kept the note, and as an extra cocky line for my future self I added, “don’t worry, this one I know for sure and won’t forget.” When I went back to my notes a few months later I had obviously forgotten all about it. What an obnoxious little brat.
As a final note on writing your thoughts, it is important that you do it not just to remember them but also to encourage more thinking. Writing makes you slow down and organize your ideas in a coherent way, this in turn promotes more thinking and connections.
Another benefit of underlining and taking notes.
I constantly go back to books and read only my notes and underlinings. The first time you read a book you need examples, stories, and arguments. But once you understand the subject, you can go straight to the information you want, and avoid all the fillers. If you don’t take notes or underline, you would have to read the entire book again.
Summaries and conceptual maps
Making summaries leads to a better understating of the subject because it makes you think about what you are reading and forces you to condense the information. The summaries you make also work as quick references to refresh your memory. To get the best results, summarize in your own words, it will help you understand and encode the information at a deeper level.
Conceptual maps or Mind maps help you in a similar way, they force you to create an overview of what you read and to organize and connect main ideas. All this thinking and ruminating on the information helps solidify it in your memory.
A word on reviewing
Reviewing is not much of a learning strategy. The value of reviewing is to refresh the information you already know, but it is not an efficient strategy to learn it the first time.
When you review information (either your notes, summaries, underlinings or the entire book) be aware of the “Fluency illusion”, where we mistake our familiarity with the material with the mastery of the content. In other words, you recognize the information so you assume you already know it. To really find out what you know or don’t know you need some kind of self testing, either in the form of explaining the subject in your own words or answering questions about it.
Closely related to marginalia, underlining, and summarizing is keeping a commonplace book. This is a type of journal or notebook where you write down ideas, quotes, and concepts you find valuable.
A commonplace book becomes a collection of all the wisdom you come across. There are variations on how to keep one, it can go from just writing down anything you find worthy of remembering without any order, to a complex system with many categories and cross references. Check this article by Ryan Holiday on how and why to keep a commonplace book.
A great way to use marginalia to remember what you read is by creating quiz like questions as you are reading. Let’s imagine that you are reading a book on Napoleon. As you read, write questions next to the paragraphs where you learned something you would like to remember.
For example, if you just learned about a specific battle, write next to the paragraph “when did this battle took place and how it unfolded?” Once you finish the book, go through your questions trying to answer them by memory. If you can’t remember, don’t worry, the answer is in the paragraph next to the question. Keep quizzing yourself every other day until the material is solid in your memory. This strategy basically creates instant Flash Cards.
Why should you do this?
Practice testing is one of the best learning strategies out there. It surpasses summarizing, underlining, reviewing, and route learning (repetition). The effort we put into trying to recall the right answers during practice testing makes a big impact in strengthening our memories.
Here’s John Dunlosky on the article “Strengthening the Student toolbox: Study strategies to Boost Learning” Featured on “American Educator”:
“Taking practice tests can substantially boost student learning…The use of practice tests can improve student learning in both direct and indirect ways. When students correctly retrieve an answer from memory, the correct retrieval can have a direct effect on memory. When a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, that failure signals that the answer need to be re-studied; in this way, practice test can help students make better decisions about what need further practice and what does not.”
He then adds, “Most important is to make frequent use of testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know.”
Mnemonics are memory techniques to make memorizing easier and more efficient. It’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss the techniques, but we’ll cover them in depth in future articles. In the meantime I encourage you to pick up a book on the subject; reading about Memory and mnemonics is fascinating and well worth your time. Here’s a link to a good book to start: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
For more recommendations of memory books see Referenced material under the title “memory.” I list there the books I’ve used to improve my memory and for my research on learning.
Talking about the book or teaching what you learned
This idea is similar to summarizing and making conceptual maps, but instead of writing you’ll be talking. Next time you are socializing talk about the book or the subject, try to explain to other people what you learned. You will find that is difficult the first time, but you will get better as you force yourself to do it. This type of recall will help you strengthen and organize the knowledge you got from the book.
Read in Clusters
Read more than one book on a subject. There are several benefits for doing this:
1. You’ll get a better understanding of the subject. Your mind will be thinking about it for longer and you’ll have more information to build your knowledge. Also, as you internalize the principles, you’ll start seeing deeper layers and nuances of what you are reading.
2. You’ll remember more. With better understanding also comes better encoding. It’s easier for us to remember what we understand deeply. We are also being exposed to the information for a longer time, and as ideas repeat themselves they become reinforced in our memory.
3. You’ll be exposed to different perspectives from several authors. Reading this way gives you better understanding of the subject because it makes the books complement of each other instead of being stand alone. Also, reading from different authors in a subject will help you avoid the “only source bias” where we think what we read is right even though we haven’t read other sources.
When I was younger I used to be hunted by all the things I didn’t know, I was obsessed about it. I would say that now I’m just as concerned -or maybe more- about what I think I know but might be wrong. I am concerned that I might be basing my life on information I never revised because I once accepted it as true without studying other perspectives.
If you are going to follow this strategy make sure to not let much time pass by between books, ideally read them back to back. The information should be fresh in your mind so you don’t waste time reviewing and relearning the material.
Reading in clusters will also improve your reading speed. Since you already have knowledge of what you are reading, you won’t have to spend time trying to understand it again. The Information will also start to overlap, you can then speed up on the parts you already know and focus on the information that is new and important which will give you the deeper understanding we are looking for.
Make knowledge personal
We learn faster and remember better when the knowledge is personal and actionable. Try to relate what you are learning to something you already know and visualize specific scenarios where you can apply the new knowledge. Think how it relates or benefits your life and when you can use it. If you are reading a book on body language, for example, think about how you could apply the ideas to your next presentation at work and how it would benefit you.
Taking action/Using the information
The best way to remember what you read is to use it or incorporate it into your life in some way. Besides being the best strategy to remember what you read, it’s also the ultimate goal of reading (non fiction that is). Using the information -which can also mean being able to talk about the subject or having a better understanding of it- is why you wanted to learn the ideas from the book in the first place.
Read, Read, Read.
The more you know the easier it is to learn more and remember what you learn. Why? Knowledge is not linear in our minds, it is a web, we make connections between subjects and memories. The more things you can connect new knowledge to the easier it is to understand and remember it.
We’ve covered many strategies to remember what you read. It might seem overwhelming so implement the ones you like the most, let them become second nature, and then work on another one. My goal is to show you different things you can do to remember what you read, but I don’t want to turn reading into a dreadful activity for you. Above all, I want you to read and learn more, so implement the strategies at your own pace.
We’ve come to the end of the series “How to read more and remember what you read.” Here’s an overview of what we’ve covered.
How to read more and remember what you read
Dedicating more Time
- Carry a book everywhere
- Read a pre-determined amount of pages everyday
- Read for a pre-determined amount of time everyday.
- Read, read, read
- Avoid distractions
- Don’t try multitasking
- Read, read, read
Increasing your reading speed
- Book type, writing style, and your familiarity with the subject affect your speed.
- Read in an environment that allows you to focus
- Learn and practice the basics of speed reading
- Skim when necessary
- Read, read, read
Remembering what you read
- Prime your mind to learn
- Underline and take notes
- Make summaries and conceptual maps
- Keep a commonplace book
- Practice testing
- Learn the basics of mnemonics
- Talk about the book or teach what you learned
- Read in clusters
- Make the knowledge personal
- Take action, use the information
- Read, read, read
This concludes the series “How to read more and remember what you read”. In the upcoming posts we will discuss Habits, learning strategies, and pitfalls to avoid when developing a skill. Don’t miss a post, sign up for the newsletter Here
Put your new reading skills to use, see here 5 Great books to improve your skills and achieve mastery
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