Remembering what you read is one of the most top-of-mind challenges that students and learners have. Either because you are preparing for an exam, or just learning to get better at something you love, you have to become familiar with how your brain works, and which are the mental processes that take place when you read.
Below is a step-by-step guide that takes you through the process of reading, learning, and memorizing by explaining key concepts and methods from the industry.
How do you read?
Reading may seem like just our eyes traversing words and our mind picking up the meaning, but it’s more than that. Everything has an impact on how we read and memorize — from the type of text that we read, the typography of it, the length of the text, our purpose to read, and even the external environment has a role in this, such as how much sleep we had the night before. All of them work together to shape how we read and perceive the information in our minds.
In fact, reading is not a linear process, but rather a series of eye movements called saccades.
There are a few main reading techniques that we use as human beings.
When you’re looking to pull specific information from a text, skimming comes into play. Basically, your eyes team up with your mind and start scanning for specific keywords that you need. The actual reading happens only around the keyword after being found, to get the information and context.
A great place where you can use skimming is while doing research. Think of a few words which are essential to the topic and start skimming publications for them.
There’s no real limit to how many of these keywords you can choose, so focus on their quality and relevance to the topic.
Much like skimming, scanning helps you get information quicker when reading. What sets the two apart is that while skimming is laser-focused on a subject which you are searching for, scanning is more general — it helps you get an overview of the text.
While scanning, your eyes analyze the headline and shapes of the text. When you see a headline, you stop only to read the first few words of each paragraph to get the gist.
Scan texts when you need to pick up the topic being discussed fast and get a general idea.
In contrast to the other two methods, intensive reading is an in-depth style of reading. It’s very useful when you need to fully understand the subject which you are reading about.
During the intensive reading, your mind has time to analyze and process the information as it comes in. It solidifies it then into the memory and creates more profound links with existing knowledge, compared to just scanning or skimming.
For example, very often students are using intensive reading while studying course materials. This way, your mind actually learns information instead of just getting an overview. One way to boost this is by taking notes.
Since this method helps absorb a lot of information, your mind needs consistent breaks. Consider doing short bursts of intensive reading to make sure that you are not losing the information after a while.
Active vs passive readers
There are two types of people in this world: active readers and passive readers.
People that usually forget the information which they read as quickly as turning a page are called passive readers. They focus more on quantity reading — think of them as a marathon runner. Passive readers can read a whole book in one sitting and not feel overwhelmed by it. For them, reading is more of a relaxing activity through which they can think of their own stuff while doing it.
Information-wise, a passive reader that reads a lot is not much better off than one that reads little. They do not retain much information either way but can devour entire libraries if they have the time.
On the other hand, active readers are much more engaged. They are inside the text, which leads them to remember the majority of the information that they read. Just like a boxer, active readers can get much better over time by… reading more. The mind is a malleable organ — by engaging it through reading, you develop mental models that give you a leg up when reading new subjects.
Even better, this type of person becomes faster after each book. People that identify as active readers tend to make better decisions and be more knowledgeable in general.
How does your memory retain what you read?
To understand how your memory works, we need to first look at its composition. There’s the short-term memory and the long-term one.
Short-term memory acts as a small cache for new information, before being sent to the long-term memory. It helps you retain stuff quickly, but for a short time if not memorized afterwards. Think of new names of people you’ve just met: how often do you forget their name right after them telling you? The short memory is estimated to have a duration span of a few seconds, so it’s important to exercise new information as soon as you get it.
Long-term memory, on the other hand, is indefinite. There is no real margin to how much the long-term memory can hold, and it’s typically the one that people think of when “memory” is mentioned.
The Memorization Process
The way your mind solidifies new information and stocks it into the long-term memory for being recalled whenever you need it is done in 3 stages. These are called the encoding, storage, and retrieval process.
New information that enters our system needs to first be changed into the right format.
This encoding can take 3 forms:
- Visual encoding
- Acoustic encoding
- Semantic encoding
Researchers found out that the main encoding mechanism of short-term memory is acoustic (through sound). Have you ever noticed that you tend to repeat something out loud in order to remember it? That’s the acoustic encoding at work.
Long-term memory usually formats through semantic encoding, which is through the meaning of the information. It also uses the other two mechanisms, but the larger extent is the latter.
After the information is in the correct format, your mind then begins to store it.
First, it stores it into the short-term memory, which has limited space like a ticking time bomb. George Miller, a renowned cognitive psychologist, suggested that we have 7 (plus-minus 2) slots of information that the short-term memory can hold. When these slots get filled, they store information for about 30 seconds before either sending it to the long-term memory or losing it.
On the other hand, storage capacity is believed to be unlimited in long-term memory. It may not seem this way, but your mind is actually a huge hard drive of your life.
The last stage of the memorization process is the most important one — memory retrieval. The value of storing a large amount of memory is being able to access it.
New memories are stored and can be recalled upon through association. This is why items or events that you see can sometimes bring out memories seemingly out of the blue — they are connected semantically in your mind.
While your mind does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to stocking and retrieving information, it needs outside factors to help it work optimally.
- Degree of attention. To signal your mind that the information you are reading is important, you need to focus on it. Concentrating on that information is the most important factor when it comes to memorization.
- Motivation. Are you motivated to read that information? This factor simmers down into the first one in the sense that your mind needs to have an interest in the text. It’s hard to swim against the current, so motivate your mind to find the text valuable.
- Emotional state. Emotions affect every part of our lives, and reading is not exempted. For your mind to be able to focus on the information and store it, it’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling at the time, and what emotions come off from the text you are about to read. For example, if you’re on a vacation, it’s a good idea to read light, fiction books that relax and entertain your mind.
- The environment. There is a reason why libraries are very quiet and well light — the environment you’re in affects how well you can learn! Stay away from noisy places, find good lighting and a comfortable position. Keep in mind that your memory doesn’t only focus on the book, but also on the outside, so don’t give it too many stimuli at once, or your short-term memory will start losing information!
How can you improve your memory to remember what you read?
When you start reading or studying, a key step is to become familiar with the topic you want to learn. If you are aware of what the main theme is about, then you will be able to highlight the point of the text you are about to read and build a whole tree of information between new and old information.
Going forward, let’s see what mental tools you have available to improve your memory while reading, through the following six ones.
Build mental pictures
Building a mental picture by using visual encoding is a way to process images and real-life experiences, by temporarily storing the information in your iconic memory. The visual pieces are later moved into long-term memory, through the help of the amygdala and sleep, as mentioned by neuromarketing expert and author of Primal Brain book, Tim Ash.
If you practice a skill but don’t sleep on it, you don’t take full advantage of learning it. Sleep is what goes through our experiences and learnings from each day and transforms them into long-term memories. – Tim AshUse evolutionary psychology to improve mental clarity – Andra Zaharia
Highlight & take notes
Students and learners are often dealing with large quantities of information that they have to retain, and they need simple ways to ease their process. One of these tactics is highlighting, through which you can pin-point important pieces of information.
Despite being low rated & considered ineffective in many review studies, students and learners often use pen highlighters or online highlighters, such as Snippet, in their reading processes.
The effectiveness of highlighting depends on the way learners use it, and the main challenges are:
- To highlight too much or too little
- Highlighting without paying attention to what you are reading;
- Difficulty in filtering important information.
Structure your notes
Just as reading and segmenting the most important information, finding the best way to structure your notes has its items to work better for everyone. The topic you read or study, the lecturer or source of information, as well as other environmental factors matter.
Notes should be a tool that you use in order to facilitate your comprehension and memorization, and we recommend that you organize your notes based by picking one of the next well-known methods:
The Cornell Method
Less used when reading, and a better way to structure your notes during events, lectures, or even meetings, The Cornell Method divides your information into three sections.
The Outline Method
One of the most popular methods of note-taking for students and learners — it helps you organize information in a logical way (main topics, secondary topics, and key ideas).
The Charting Method
A practical way of organizing your statistics and detailed facts into the columns of a table, that is pretty similar to an Excel spreadsheet.
Let it sink
As we mentioned above, sleep among other environmental factors matters in order to keep your mental process functioning normally. There are different research papers in the learning industry that showcase how sleep helps learners enhance their memory, and process new material in a better way, rather than staying awake and trying to capture as much as you can.
Besides all the psychological tips & tricks, we are humans in the end, and we must be aware that there is a limit on how much we retain. Don’t push your brain too hard, and go back to your book or notes, if a piece of information didn’t stick with you.
Reading again helps you recall & memorize what you didn’t manage on your first try. Rereading a piece of content can help you create new links with existing knowledge because you might have life experiences that create a more familiar pattern.
Apply what you learned
Connected with the encoding process of your brain, memorization of things that you directly experienced can enhance your memory. So, as long as you want to remember something like how to play an instrument, how to cook a recipe, or how to run a chemical experiment, you should go for experiments that let you apply all the theory you have learned.
Enhance your memory – FAQ time!
How to read and remember more for an exam?
If you are a student looking for ways to improve your memorization skills before taking an exam, we have summarized the information above in a couple of specific tactics that you can take & apply to remember more of what you read:
- Scan the information you have to study and become familiar with your topic.
- Highlight important information, such as dates, places, names, keywords related to the main topic.
- Build a visual tree out of the information you have highlighted, and establish connections between them.
- Read your notes again if you feel something is missing.
- Take a break between your reading sessions. Go for a walk outside, and disconnect from the place where you study.
- Try to find similar exam papers online, and answer a couple of questions to test your memory. If you are still shaking on the answers, go back to the reading table.
- Sleep. Have a good session of sleep before going out to your exam.
How to absorb what you read from a book?
Depending on the type of book you are reading, you might want to connect the information to other sources.
You can do this even for fantasy books — for example, you can take the Lord of the rings books. While you read this series of books, you would have to check out the additional dictionaries, and even the movies, so you can build a better visual map of the whole story.
How to remember what you read without taking notes?
Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of taking notes when you read something. There are a couple of things that you can do in this situation to remember what you read:
- Ask yourself questions about what you read
- Quickly summarize what you read
- Connect what you read with topics you already know
- Keep your focus on specific pieces of information (names, places, numbers, etc.)
What is memory enhancement?
According to Wikipedia, memory enhancement, also well-known as memory improvement, is the act of developing one’s memory. Memory deficits, age-related memory loss, and people’s desire to improve their own memory have led to research on how to best help people to improve their memory.
What memory enhancement techniques should you use?
Research determined the factors that influence memory and cognition, and they include cognitive training, psychopharmacology, diet, stress management, and exercise. Each technique has the ability to influence memory in different ways.