Date posted: 01/06/2018 4 min read

Seven ways to retain what you read

Experts say the trick to remembering what you’ve read is to practise recalling it on demand.

In Brief

  • Practise retrieving what you read by writing summaries.
  • Space out your recall sessions over a number of days.
  • Read aloud to yourself or read important points into your phone, then play them back

Pamela Paul, editor of the prestigious New York Times Book Review, recently revealed an all-too-believable truth about her inexact memories of what she has read in books. “I remember the book itself,” she told The Atlantic. “I remember the physical object … I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember – and it’s terrible – is everything else.”

Most professionals suffer the same problem: almost all of the words in those reports, emails, web pages, magazines and books evaporate from memory with terrifying speed.

The following tips come from University of Melbourne neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath, psychology professor Colin MacLeod, Texas A&M University neuroscience professor William Klemm, economist Tyler Cowen, author Daniel Coyle, and Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, among other sources. 

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1. Scout the territory

To figure out what the document is about and the main points you need to remember, use hints the document gives you: the title, section and chapter headings, the introduction and summaries. Skim the material to understand the author’s style and organisation. Sometimes, notes Klemm, good skimming may be all you need. 

Adler’s How to Read a Book calls this “X-raying” your material, because you’re looking for the skeleton. 

2. Reviewing doesn’t work

The least effective technique, says Horvath, is to just go back over what you’ve read – re-reading textbooks, re-watching lectures, re-copying notes. Highlighting rarely helps either.

3. So focus on recall

“Focus less on cramming info into your brain and more on pulling information out of your brain,” says Horvath. Research so far favours “repeated retrieval”. So once you’ve read, write your own summaries, try explaining points to yourself or others, give yourself a quiz, or add the main points to an updated document of key information.

Coyle claims research proves the effectiveness of reading a dozen pages or a chapter and then writing a one-pager recalling what you have read. Parrish cites the “Feynman Technique”, used by brilliant physicist Richard Feynman: write the explanation you could use to help a smart eight-year-old understand the topic.

4. Practise for the setting

Horvath also points to research that suggests mimicking the conditions under which you’ll have to recall information. If you’ll be presenting to investors, practise your recall while standing at a table, not sitting on a couch.

5. Space out your recall sessions

Horvath recommends reviewing and recalling important material several times over a number of days, using what is called “spaced repetition”. 

He says research suggests you will remember up to 50% more than people who do the same exercise in one long session.

6. Rehearse and replay

Bad luck if you work in an open-plan office, but at least one new study claims the best recall comes from reading aloud to yourself. Second best: hearing yourself. Try reading out important points into your phone and playing them back through your headphones, which in research produced a “significant advantage” for test subjects. We don’t just like the sound of our own voices; we recall them better.

7. Stop if it’s no good

You may decide that what you’re reading is not very useful or well-written or important. If it’s a corporate document, you might suggest tactfully that the author shorten and sharpen it. If it’s a book, consider discarding it. "We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," Cowen argues. Remember what counts; let go of the rest.

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