Home»Quora»I find that I don’t retain much of what I read? How can I read more “efficiently”?

Another piece aimed at helping a student with problems in a critical area.

Paul Bush
Paul Bush, Associate Prof. Journalism & Digital Media, trying to teach how to learn better

You might check out the Quora answers in another thread on retaining what you read.

My own advice is first, don’t beat yourself up. I remember being a freshman in college and every evening I’d go to the library to read articles a professor put on reserve for us. I’d sit there for hours and not remember a thing, because I couldn’t understand what they were saying or what I was supposed to get out of them. I figured the problem lay within me and I’d simply read the same paragraphs over and over again, until I finally gave up.

It would help if we knew what sort of reading you’re having trouble with. If the answer is everything, then you may be best off talking to a counselor at school to make sure you’re not affected by some form of attention deficit or another issue that would interfere with your learning.

If your problem is just with certain subjects or types of reading, there are any number of tactics to try. Are you lacking base knowledge of the subject, so that everything is beyond you? That’s what my problem was. The professor had assigned journal articles that I simply wasn’t prepared to read.

But if that’s not an issue, try reading shorter segments and then stopping to ask yourself, what was the basic idea in that paragraph or page? Reflect on what you just read. What does it mean, how does it fit in to what you already know, what seems to be the point?

If you’re reading a textbook, go back to the chapter introduction for a second – does it have a summary or highlights? Look at the chapter’s end for the same thing. If there any quiz questions at the end, ask yourself why are they asking that, does it give me a clue about what’s supposed to be important. And by the way, don’t try to be “efficient” and do this only at the beginning of doing your reading. Do it as you go along.

Jot notes. Bulletpoint the things you’re coming up with in these brief reflective moments. Then go back later and review your notes, because that review will be important in helpinmg you remember.

There are any number of other techniques you can add to this. Break your reading up into shorter periods: don’t try to read so much all at once. Exercise (yes, exercise) regularly so that your brain gets the benefit of the BDNF (look it up!) that’s produced. Go for walks where it’s green – studies shows that “green walks” also benefit the brain and your emotional state.

And don’t forget to reward yourself. Trying out these different techniques takes work. Give yourself a small reward (one of my students would herself a Goldfish cracker after every few paragraphs that she’d successfully read, another would eat a blackberry) and you’ll be surprised how your brain responds.

You’ll get better at this, as long as you put in the work.

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