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How to read a textbook effectively and remember what you read

by Chetna Vasishth


So, let’s learn some scientific techniques that will help us read our textbooks in the right way, grasp the right information from the book, remember it for a long time and do all this in the shortest time possible.

In this article we will learn
1. A step by step and simple process to read your text books effectively and remember what you’ve read
2. 3 Bonus tips to make this process easy

These techniques are based on the science of how memory works and will help you no matter which book you are reading and how old you are.

Let’s begin our step by step, simple process of how to read a textbook efficiently and remember what you read.

1. Know the Goal –

Take a strategic approach. Know how you are going to be tested – is it MCQ’s or a long analysis, short answers or fill in the blanks. Knowing this in advance prepares us to read the book strategically

2. Impress –

Create a right first impression. Say a new girl has just joined your school and you want to make friends with her, and you want to make a good first impression on her. Chances are, before you go and meet her, you will ask people about her background, where she has come from and anything that you can find out about her, before you go and have that first conversation with her.

Similarly, to create a good first impression on your memory, you need to prime your brain. Maybe read an overview of the content on the internet, see a video or a documentary about that topic before you begin reading the book.
Become familiar before you dive in. Remember that Content is King, but Context is God.

3. Systematic Skimming –

Now, when you chat with this girl for the first time, you will probably have a discussion around the bigger topics – like your backgrounds, how many siblings you both have, or what your parents do, which cities she has lived in before etc.

Similarly, the first time you open the book, now that you already have a good first impression, try to make friends with the book. Skim the chapters, read headings, blurbs, read the points in bold and formulate a big picture in your mind.

4. Associate –

Now start reading the chapter from start to end. This is similar to your sitting down with your new friend and having a long chat. At this stage chances are you will find yourself making associations – she resembles my cousin, or she likes chocolate cake just like my neighbour etc.

Similarly, making associations about the text you read helps you remember it for a long time. example the date on which the war began is your dad’s birthday or perhaps the characters name sounds like your friends name.

5. Engage all your senses –

Imagine taking dozens of clothes and trying to hang them on one single hook. You might get a few clothes to hang, and most of them will just fall down. What we need is multiple hooks at different points on the wall

Likewise, the brain is like that wall and reading the textbook is ONE hook on which all the information is hanging. We now need to create more hooks in different parts of the brain so that all the information stays there. And our senses are those hooks –

1. Sight –

how can we develop a photogenic memory so that we can recall the entire text visually.
a) I found that visually remembering which corner of the page the information appeared on, helped me recall that information in the exam
b) Think in pictures, and the more grotesque and vivid the pictures, the more likely you are to remember them
c Draw diagrams, mind maps, charts
d) Watch videos, documentaries etc.

2. Sound –

sound will help create new associations in a different part of the brain – so
a) Read out aloud – especially read the keywords aloud
b) Teach someone
c) Discuss it with your classmates.

A friend of mine would come up to me every single day and tell me a new joke. So once I asked her, hey, how do you even remember so many jokes, I forget them as soon as I read them. And she replied ‘that’s because I tell them to you’. So telling and re-telling something greatly helps in retaining it.

Use the Feynman technique to store information in your long term memory. Try teaching it to a child, identify your gaps – come back and review the source material – simplify it and try teaching it once more, till the little one understands what you mean

3. Writing –

the tactile act of writing also creates new hooks in the brain, in fact experts will tell you that reading a textbook like a story book without ever writing a single word is perhaps the worst way to read the book. So,

a) Make short notes / highlights in the book itself
b) Make notes of your own – we have a dedicated video on how best to do this
c) Write a blog – in your own words

Similarly, some people recall information better when they move around and research has shown the the act of reading a physical book with the touch of the fingers on the paper has led to greater recall than reading online.
Likewise, if the content allows, then applying what you are reading has a huge impact on your retention. Example if you are reading a music book, then playing those notes, or if you are reading a recipe book, then cooking that dish, smelling and tasting it will make it unforgettable

Our brain remembers experiences vividly, even years later. So make textbook reading a sensory experience, read it actively with full involvement. These multiple hooks will make your brain like a steel trap for all the information to stay in your long term memory

6. Critical Reading –

How about we engage the brain in a way that it thinks about the information that we are reading –

a) Become a detective – have a question in your mind before you start reading. You’ll then be like a detective looking for clues in the chapter. While reading ask yourself questions about the material – why did the author mention this? do I agree with the authors conclusion? where is the evidence etc.

b) Think of the ramifications or implications of the content.

c) Think about how the content connects to your own personal preferences, personality and experiences.

7. Repeat –

Repetition helps solidify memories. Re-read and re-tell. Read the highlighted sections if you don’t want to read the full text again and again. Also sometimes when you read the same content for the third time, you begin to form new connections.

8. Condense and Simplify –

With repeat readings, condense your notes such that you have the entire chapter covered on one page. This will be great during your last minute revisions

Bonus Tips

1. Small segments –

start with 10-15 minutes at a time. Take a break. Breaks are very important because the brain focuses during these moments of rest. Slowly start increasing the sessions to about 20-25 minutes.

2. Energy –

read when you are more energized e.g. early morning or just after a nap. And stop reading when you are tired and begin to lose focus

3. Practice –

the more you read, the better you become at it. Remember the 10,000 hour rule. So read everyday and enjoy reading!

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