How to remember what you read

Posted by Natalia on 5/31/21 12:00 PM

Maybe this sounds familiar: you’re sitting in class, racking your brain for the answer to a question you know you should be able to answer, but the information’s just not there. You’re frustrated. You spent hours doing the reading, yet now it’s like it evaporated from your head.

It can be tempting to assume that the remedy is to go back after class and read it again, but if you read the same way you did before, you’ll probably have the same problem. Instead of spending hours reviewing, work smarter by making sure to summarize what you read — and use these three tips to make this tool truly effective.

1. Summarize as you go

If you’re stressed about getting through a mountain of assignments, it can be tempting to read as fast as possible, lingering on each word just long enough to figure out what it says, then try to hastily recall what you’ve read once you’ve reached the end. But you’ll get more out of your reading if you summarize while you’re reading, pausing every so often to check in. This will help you catch yourself in those moments when you get to the end of a paragraph only to realize you were distracted the entire time.

More crucially, taking time to summarize helps you bring information out of your short-term memory and into your long-term memory, where you can find it later. The process of thinking about what you’ve read long enough to put it into your own words ensures that you’re learning, not just scanning the words.

2. Break the text into sections

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how often you should pause to summarize. It depends on how thoroughly you need to understand what you’re reading, and how complicated or unfamiliar the text is. If you’re a picking up a novel, once at the end of each chapter might be enough, unless you’re planning to write a paper about it later; if you’re reading a dense historical article, you might want to stop at the end of each page, or even each paragraph. You’ll probably want to pause more often if you’re reading something you don’t have much experience with, the same way people typically read more slowly in a language they’re less fluent in. An engineering major reading about Renaissance painters will need more check-ins than an art history major, but the opposite will likely be true for an article about the physics of suspension bridges.

The surest guide is your own experience. If you get to a stopping point and you realize you can’t describe in your own words what you just read, that tells you it’s time to go back and re-read — and this time, stop earlier. Your goal is break the text up into chunks small enough to hold in your mind. For a particularly complex text, this might feel slow if you’re not used to it, but it will save you time in the long run by cutting down on how many times you have to review the text.

3. Focus on the important things — and write them down

When you’re summarizing to get the most out of your reading, the goal is not to painstakingly rephrase every fact or detail you come across. Instead, try to focus on major concepts and important ideas. Ask yourself: What’s the big takeaway from what you just read? What are all these facts working together to convey? If the author had to cut this section down to no more than three sentences, what do you think they would say?

You can use those questions to help you take effective notes. Many people take notes by underlining or copying down facts, but this isn’t as helpful as it might seem. Research has shown that in lectures, students who take notes by hand remember concepts better than students who take notes on their computers, even though most people type faster than they write. You learn more when you have to choose what’s worth writing down. The same principle applies to your reading notes. Instead of just marking up the text or jotting down significant phrases, take the extra time to express what you’ve learned in your own words. You’ll understand it more deeply when you’ve made the effort to think it through — and that will help lock it into your memory.

Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.

We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.

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