When you read something that you want to learn from a textbook for college or an article that is of import to you, how do you go about it? If you are like most people, you start from the beginning, read every word and stop reading when you come to the end of the text. Maybe you go away with a feeling that what you have read was interesting, or that you will surely remember it later on. If you study for an exam, perhaps you return to the text several times and reread it in the same manner.

Like most people who read like this, you have probably been surprised at how little you remember when asked to actively recall what you have read. What you thought you knew when rereading the text was not as easily extracted from your memory when you didn’t have the text in front of you. This is because we trick ourselves to believe that we have learned something when, in fact, we have only learned to recognize it as being familiar.

What I suggest – together with thousand other teachers, educators, super-learners and speed-readers around the world – is that in order to learn and remember more efficiently, you should spend less time reading and more time pre-reading and reviewing (though not by way of re-reading the text).

What then is pre-reading?

Pre-reading is first and foremost a means to an end. And the end, the purpose, is to prime and prepare your brain to be more receptive when you later read the text.

Even before you begin to pre-read I suggest that you ask yourself some guiding questions. Why do you want to read this text? When and in what context and for what purpose are you going to use what you take away from the text? Is it for an exam, a presentation at work, to impress friends at the next party, to add to your mental encyclopedia on a certain topic, or what? Maybe you want to gather information to be able to make an informed decision about something.

Depending on the purpose of your reading, decide on what level of detail you want to be able to recall and what exactly you want to commit to long term memory. Do you want to be able to recall specific dates and details, names and numbers, or is it enough if you can recall the big picture and the conclusions? Are you interested in the analyses made, or in the facts? In all of it, or only a subdomain of the main topic?

And how long do you want to remember what you read? Do you want to keep it forever in memory, or is it sufficient if you remember it until the next staff meeting? Depending on your answers, you will read the text differently and some sections you may not want to read at all.

When you are clear about your purpose, begin with surveying the text (the book, or the chapter, or the article), just spending a few seconds per page. Note any headings, figures, images, italics, textual structures and anything that sticks out or arouses your curiosity. Anything that generates interest, curiosity and engagement with the text is good.

After each page (or natural chunk of text), look away from the text and try to recall a few items that stuck in your short term memory. See if you can make them into something memorable, fancy images that could represent the key points in the text, or the rudiments of a mindmap, for instance.

Questions to ask

As you pre-read the text, try to come up with questions that will make you want to read the text in detail to find out more, questions that will make your brain interested. I use the acronym FM-COPE to remind myself of all the different kinds of questions I could ask.

F: Factual questions: Who invented? Where did it take place? When will it expire? What parts does it consist of? Which one is the most energy-efficient? How many are there? These are the kinds of questions that often first come to mind – and unfortunately, factual questions are also the most boring and least curiosity evoking sort of questions.

M: Meaning-related questions: What is the purpose of doing X? Why is it right/ wrong to do Y? Which is better, X or Y? What is the intrinsic value of X? Does Y have a meaning? Is there a God? What did the author mean by X?

C: Childish questions: Why is NN so stupid? Why do farts smell? When will you die? Is God heavy?

O: Out of the box questions: What is the colour of number five? Does the dog look forward to its birthday? What would happen if I used X as a Y?

P: Perspectival questions: Ask questions from different perspectives, for instance, if the topic is a bookshelf: By what means can I reach the high shelf? (a child) What will happen if I break my hip while climbing the ladder to reach the high shelf, will I recover? (elderly) At what price can the shelf be sold? (salesperson) What is that smell coming from the shelf? (a dog) From what time period is the shelf? (designer) Am I willing to be persuaded by this text? (you) What would Yoda say about this argument? (Yoda/your client/boss/grandmother)

E: Emotional questions: What does it feel like to be eaten by a lion? What emotions does the text evoke? How do you make X desire Y? Is X depressed/happy?

All taken together, in a text about a battle you might ask questions like: If I were a child in the besieged city, how would I feel? If I were a woman, a soldier, a rich person? What would have happened if the other side had won? What grounds do I have to believe the details reported as facts in the text? How did they manufacture the weapons utilized? Who paid for that? How does it feel to be shot by an arrow? What are the chances of survival, and who cares for the injured? What is the purpose of the battle, long term and short term, and according to whom? Why didn’t they just let the generals have it out in a fistfight? Is war always wrong? Is killing sometimes justified, and then according to whom?

Now you are ready to begin reading the text.

  • You are curious to find out the answers to some specific questions you have come up with.
  • You have picked up roughly how the text is structured, perhaps that there will be three arguments supporting the conclusion, or that the text will give five examples of business structures, and so you have the skeleton of a mindmap by which to organize your notes.
  • You have created some visual images that will help you remember some of the content of the text.
  • You will have an inkling about which parts of the text will be less interesting for you and which are the parts where you will want to spend more time.

Thus prepared, you can begin to read, stopping now and again to create more visual markers and add to your mindmap whatever pieces of information or analysis that you want to take with you from the text into longterm memory storage.

When you have finished reading the whole text, take some time going over your notes and your mindmap to finetune and add to your visual images, notes and structure, now that you have it all fresh in mind. Time spent here will pay back manifold later.

Now all you have to do is to review your notes/mindmaps in spaced intervals so that you secure the information in your long term memory (for more about this, see the blog post about Spaced repetition).