Reading Comprehension & Studying
May 19, 2014 2:10 PM   Subscribe

This is somewhat of a strange question, but when you are reading a book, how many times do you go over the information? I'll use the book Succeed, How to Reach Your Goals as an example. I read through the book and highlighted what I believed to be the important points. Then I go back and re-read the book once more. Is this overkill? What strategies do people use to really understand something that you are reading? How do you know when you have really taken in the information? What strategies do others use when they are trying to learn something well enough that they can use it? Any suggestions or anecdotal stories would be much appreciated?
posted by nidora to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
When I was taking an LSAT prep course back in 1989, I was given a method to use for the reading comp section. I thought at the time, well ha, who needs it, I'm a great reader, but this reading comp was seriously the most dense crap I had ever read and ever would read until I got to some Supreme Court decisions on first amendment issues.

Anyway, their method not only worked for the LSAT but served me well in law school. Here is their method and rationale.

When you are reading something, randomly mark it off into sections of about 5 lines each. Then read only those five lines. Then in the margin summarize the five lines in a couple of words that do not appear in the text. Then move to the next section.

They said if you use words that are in the text, it goes in and out of your head without being processed and assimilated. But if you have to think hard enough about it to come up with new words that say the same thing, you will have processed it and you understand it.

For not-so-dense material, if you aren't processing it thoroughly when you read it, try taking notes using the same principles, only perhaps just doing it at the end of a chapter. You could think of "study" questions and then answer them, not in a formal essay format but at least using words that do not appear in the text.
posted by janey47 at 2:16 PM on May 19, 2014 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: That sounds like a very good system to use. Do you do this when you are reading things that are outside of law school? I guess my question is does this process inhibit your ability to read things quickly or is that irrelevant since you are really trying to understand what you are reading?
posted by nidora at 2:23 PM on May 19, 2014

This process actually sped up my reading of very dense material, because I didn't have to go over it repeatedly. For things that I'm reading simply for pleasure, I don't use this method.
posted by janey47 at 2:32 PM on May 19, 2014

The beautiful thing about restating things in your own words is that it tests whether you've understood what you read. If you can't restate the important points of a passage in your own words, then you need to go back and read it again. There's also research that suggests that explaining concepts in your own words helps you remember them better than just copying down the original phrases or sentences.

It's possible to read and highlight pretty passively. You should be taking notes, either in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. You probably don't need to read every book twice, but you do need to stop pretty frequently to take notes and make sure that you are really processing and understanding what you're reading.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:32 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

To me it really depends how invested I am in what I'm reading. If I'm really invested in the topic, I just... read it. And then I know the stuff I wanted to know. Because my brain does the thing, by virtue of the entire goal being organic. Want to know stuff, find book, read book, know desired stuff.

The trouble comes when it's homework, especially homework that doesn't particularly interest me. In that scenario, I do have to force myself to read much more closely, highlight* or take notes on important details, and potentially re-read. I find writing -- especially hand writing -- to be really integral for me in terms of remembering minutia, so if I'm reading with an eye to that sort of thing, distilling the text down into handwritten notes can really help. Even if I don't use the notes again.

Seconding the idea of restating in your own words.

*FWIW I find most highlighting counterproductive, because you're focused on the action of highlighting rather than the actual material. But YMMV of course.
posted by Sara C. at 3:29 PM on May 19, 2014

Take notes, then when you're done go through your notes and cull/outline them so the most important stuff fits on one side of a single sheet of paper. Just the act of making this summary sheet will lock in most of the information, and for anything you forget you can refer to the summary sheet to jog your memory.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:01 PM on May 19, 2014

Best answer: Nidora, I'm going to paraphrase an answer I gave in another a couple of years ago. A book that totally changed my (reading) life was How To Read A Book. The book lays out a methodical process for reading non-fiction. The authors discuss three levels of reading: "x-raying" a book, reading the book (understanding what the book says), and criticizing the book (forming your own opinions about the validity of the authors arguments, developing counter-arguments, etc.).

If you follow the process outlined in the book, you inevitably end up taking detailed notes. For me, I am writing one sentence summaries of each paragraph in my own words and making lots of meta-comments (identifying key words and special terms; determining arguments the author is making; and cross-referencing other things I've already read). At the deepest level of reading, you are attempting to form opinions about each and every paragraph the author is writing (agree, disagree, suspend judgment) and formulating arguments when you disagree. The notes will be too voluminous to write in the margins, you need to do it on a separate sheet of paper or notebook. You'll get good at recognizing "bridge" paragraphs that don't convey any new information, but even then, you can still end up with 30-50 pages of notes for a book.

At the end of my read, I'll sometimes consolidate/edit my notes into a formal outline if I think I'll need to refer to it later. As you can imagine, this is a time consuming way to read, but I find that by the time I get through an article or a book, I've got a deep understanding of what the author is trying to get across and can retain it for years. I've got a couple of notebooks of outlines and find that, if I've forgotten the main points of the book, it only takes a couple of minutes with the outline and the book comes flooding back.
posted by kovacs at 6:23 PM on May 19, 2014

One possibility, based on my own practice: put down the highlighter and pick up a pen. Where you would highlight, instead underline or sideline. And use the pen to write in the margins. I do something that's a blend of a running summary of major points plus my own comments (agreement, disagreement, connections to other places on the book or other books). Also smiley faces, which can be both laughing with and laughing at.
posted by sy at 6:57 PM on May 19, 2014

Writing notes for someone else to use is very effective. You could put a summary on GoodReads or your own blog. A detailed review or SparkNotes like take on a book requires very careful attention and means you've learned the material.

How to Read A Book disappointed me because it is about study skills, not literary close reading. The method they recommend is very thorough, but seemed to be more for reading a thesis only rather than engaging with the text in more varied ways. I wouldn't use that method to read a novel for example.

For each book, what are you trying to get out of the text? Audio with pen and paper to take notes (like a lecture) might work better if it's retaining the material of the book. Are you looking to understand the ideas of the book well enough to argue with them? Or because just reading feels like cheating?

I have to read a lot at work, and I read a lot for pleasure. I have completely different methods for different books. For example, I had to read a bunch of very long documents from WHO etc on maternal health interventions. I first read the overview/introduction in each, then scanned the contents to look for sections that were relevant. When there were just a few relevant pieces, I copy-pasted them into my master document (the equivalent in paper would be to bookmark that section with some post-it flags) and moved on to another document. When at least half of the document was relevant, I put it in the further to read pile. At that stage, I had a broad understanding of the common subjects in this area, a sort of mental framework. Then I started reading in detail what I had flagged. I made notes on another document for what I wanted to pay particular information to (e.g. prevention of group B strep through antibiotics, any reference to my country of interest) and started writing short summary notes with an attribution to the source like Cochrane recommends antibiotic regime of XYZ, see document ABC. Then at the end, I went through this document and tidied it up, shifting around to get a reasonable flow, such as putting all the ante-natal interventions here, tables and appendices there. Then I went down through that document, going back to the source materials I'd culled and now knew well from repeated readings to see if I'd put together a reasonable summary.

Then there's a book I'm reading which is a fairly dense anthropological medical account, for my own interest. I've got a pen while I read to draw lines where it's particularly interesting and (it's got nice wide margins!) notes for my questions. I'd say every page has a note and several underlinings. I'm also drawing asterix where she refers to something I'd like to read later. My plan is to re-read this with the notes and look up the asterixed sources and then I will be able to write a longish review for my own blog and really, my own satisfaction of having understood and argued/agreed mentally with the author.

My husband just gave me a book on Jane Austen and balls (A Dance with Jane Austen - not serious work, but delightful) and I plan to read it differently. The book is too pretty to make notes in, and I will instead either make notes on interesting points on slips of paper inside the book (yay post-its!) or in a Jane Austen file I keep on my computer. It's not serious research, so I will probably just read the book now, re-read her work and dip back into the book when I want to be refreshed on some point.

You can read a single text multiple ways. It's fascinating to me for instance how people read the Bible. There are people who will wrestle with a single paragraph/chapter, going into the concordances and the translations, people who will look at the whole book - there's so much supporting material to be brought in. And people who will simply read a passage and reflect on it on their own for some depth and time.

Read your book to any depth you need. I do think re-reading is a good thing, but you need some time or activity between to bring something new to the act of reading. I read the Odyssey several times, reading different analysis and criticism in between, and it was so very different each time.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:59 PM on May 19, 2014

This article from Lifehacker is about becoming a better writer through reading that I discovered a few days ago, and links to this handy (and brief) post on Farnam Street about reading 10 pages and then writing a short summary.

Even better is Talem Nassib's suggestion (quoted in the same Farnam Street piece) is to write bullet points of material you can 'apply somewhere'.

You mention a non-fiction book, which is what I read a majority of, and the act of processing and summarizing the most important salient bits is what comprehension is all about, not reading and highlighting and re-reading. (I found early on in my college days that highlighting did very little in helping me learn, it was discussing and trying to teach others about what I learn that cemented the ideas and facts in my mind.)
posted by scooterdog at 2:54 AM on May 20, 2014

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